Van Wert’s Joey Hurless puts up a layup attempt in a game at Van Wert High School Friday. The Cougars fell to visiting Celina 55-45. (Times Bulletin/Tina Eley)
Van Wert’s Joey Hurless puts up a layup attempt in a game at Van Wert High School Friday. The Cougars fell to visiting Celina 55-45. (Times Bulletin/Tina Eley)

BY JIM COX

Times Bulletin Correspondent

sports@timesbulletin.com

VAN WERT - Cougar fans have seen a lot of great Van Wert/Celina games in recent years. Friday night's was not one of them. The Bulldogs were playing without their best player, Matt Buschur (out with the flu), but used a fourth quarter spurt to get an impressive 55-45 win. Celina is now 6-8 overall and 2-3 in the Western Buckeye League. Van Wert is 9-6 and 2-3.

Field goal shooting-wise, it was a fine night for the visitors - 58 percent (23 of 40) - and a miserable night for the hosts - 31 percent (15 of 49). Celina also dominated the boards, 27-18. Despite all of that, the Cougars were very much in the game going into the fourth quarter trailing by only two, 36-34.

The Bulldogs quickly took charge from there, however. Big (6'5) Arik Fickert scored on a break, Grant Laffin canned a 10-foot baseline floater, and Braden Billger made a three-point play out of a mid-court steal. The Cougars' tireless point guard, Joey Hurless, escaped for a breakaway layup to give Van Wert fans some hope - 43-36 with 6:01 left. However, Mason Ross's two open layups pushed the lead up to 47-36 at 4:14. It still wasn't decided, because Van Wert's AJ Smith scored on a slick baseline drive, and Hurless got a steal/layup to get within 47-40 at 3:10. Ross escaped again, however to make it 49-40. Hurless hit the second of two freebies at 1:54, but Billger scored on a back door layup to give Celina an insurmountable 51-41 lead at 1:23.

The first quarter was a defensive masterpiece, or an offensive nightmare, resulting in a 7-7 tie. Both teams missed several bunnies, Van Wert going 2 for 10, Celina 3 for 11 from the field. Thereafter, however, the Bulldogs warmed up considerably, while the Cougars did not.

Hurless kept Van Wert in it through another quarter, however. He started the second period with a jumper from the foul line. Fickert's put-back tied it at 9-9, but Hurless slashed inside for a layup to make it 11-9. Two free throws by Smith and one by Hurless gave Van Wert its biggest lead, 14-9. However, the Dogs countered with a 12-2 run, interrupted only by a Hurless back door layup, and it was 21-16, Celina with 41 seconds left in the half.

Hurless then hit one of two free throws, and Connor Holliday nailed a corner three-pointer at the buzzer to narrow Celina's lead to 21-20 at the break.

The third quarter was the most exciting one, with one tie and four lead changes. The Bulldogs led by as much as five, 27-22, but Van Wert scored the next six points (two Smith free throws, Holliday layup, Kyle Keber fast break layup) to get the lead, 28-27. Three more lead changes promptly followed, but Celina got consecutive layups by Ryan Hoying and Bobby Mattraw to lead 36-32. Matt Bidlack's put-back at 0:15 closed the gap to 36-34 going into the final period.

With the big shooting and rebounding deficits, the Cougars managed to keep it close by forcing 19 Celina turnovers; Van Wert had only 10. The Cougs also shot better from the stripe - 75 percent (12 of 16) to 64 percent (9 of 14). Celina didn't shoot a three-pointer in the entire game, while Van Wert made three of them.

Despite another cold-shooting game for Van Wert, coach Dave Froelich was most displeased with the Cougars' effort. "It all started with the willingness to play and get after it - they did and we didn't," said Froelich. "They were a little wounded tonight without Buschur, but those kids really picked it up. Their energy and effort were head and shoulders better than us tonight. When we didn't make some shots, our confidence dipped, and it affected every part of our game. They outplayed us from start to finish, and they deserved to win."

Hurless led Van Wert scoring with 15, but he had very little help. Celina had much more balance with three double-digit scorers - Fickert (14), Billger (14) and Ross (12, ten of which came in the fourth quarter).

The Cougar jayvees are 14-1 after their 39-31 win. Brant Henry had 15 points, including four three-pointers, and Michael Smelser had 11. Cole Lougridge had 8 for Celina (8-6).

Score by quarters:

Van Wert 7 13 14 11 - 45 Celina 7 14 15 19 - 55

Van Wert (45)

Markward 0 1-2 1, Smith 2 4-4 8, Hurless 6 2-4 15, Holliday 2 0-0 5, Wolford 1 2-2 4, Keber 2 1-2 6, Bidlack 2 2-2 6, Ray 0 0-0 0. Totals 15 12-16 45.

Celina (55)

Bader 0 1-2 1, Billger 6 2-3 14, Hoyng 4 0-2 8, Ross 5 2-3 12, Fickert 6 2-2 14, Laffin 1 2-2 4, Mattraw 1 0-0 2, Schiavone 0 0-0 0, Moeder 0 0-0 0. Totals 23 9-14 55.

Three-point field goals: Van Wert 3 (Hurless, Keber, Holliday), Celina 0.