Van Wert junior Jacoby Kelly drives to the hoop as Crestview sophomore Wade Sheets (3) defends during a throwback game at the old Cougar Den at the Goedde Building on Crawford St. in Van Wert on Saturday night, Jan. 7, 2017. Powered by a late steal and score, Kelly and the Cougars claimed a 47-44 win. (DHI Media/Tina Eley)
Van Wert junior Jacoby Kelly drives to the hoop as Crestview sophomore Wade Sheets (3) defends during a throwback game at the old Cougar Den at the Goedde Building on Crawford St. in Van Wert on Saturday night, Jan. 7, 2017. Powered by a late steal and score, Kelly and the Cougars claimed a 47-44 win. (DHI Media/Tina Eley)
VAN WERT — The first game in over a decade inside the original Cougar Den at the old Van Wert High School on W. Crawford St. Saturday evening lived up to the hype - and then some.

It was fitting that the contest between county rivals Van Wert and Crestview went down to the wire, but in the end it was the Cougars who held on for an emotional 47-44 victory.

“This is what high school basketball should be about,” said Van Wert coach Mark Bagley. “Two communities with home-grown players that represent their school. These aren’t built teams. This is high school basketball, and that’s what you saw tonight in a great atmosphere.”

The standing-room-only crowd saw the teams battle back-and-forth for the entirety of the second half. The lead exchanged hands several times before a 41-41 tie with just over a minute and a half to play. Then, junior guard Jacoby Kelly came up with one of the game’s biggest plays. He stole a Crestview pass and took it coast-to-coast for a layup to give the Cougars a 43-41 lead with 1:35 to play.

“I really challenged Jacoby tonight,” said Bagley. “On some of the timeouts I really went after him because, I thought, defensively he was standing around. I said ‘you’re the help man. If you’re going to be the help man, and do that, then you’re going to get a steal and a layup.’ And he got it. He trusts me and I trust him. He responded to a challenge tonight and I’m really proud.”

The Knights couldn’t convert on the ensuing possession, and the ball returned to the Cougars with 1:09 to play. Kelly then picked up two more of his game-high 20 points via free throws with 32 seconds left. In fact, Kelly was the only Cougar to score in the final three minutes of the game and accounted for eight of Van Wert’s 10 fourth-quarter points.

“He’s a tough matchup,” said Crestview coach Jeremy Best of Kelly. “He’s lightning quick and he can shoot it. He’s just a good player.”

The game seemed in-hand for the Cougars after the Kelly free throws, until Crestview sophomore forward Wade Sheets hit a clutch 3-pointer with 12 seconds to play to cut the Knight deficit to one, 45-44.

Cougar senior guard Nick Gutierrez had a chance to make things harder for the Knights when he was immediately fouled just after the Sheets three, but missed the front end of a one-and-one and returned the ball to Crestview with 10 seconds to play.

Crestview worked the ball inside to Derek Stout, but the junior forward slipped, lost his footing and turned the ball back over to the Cougars.

Two more Kelly free throws sealed the win for the Cougars.

“We’ve been in this situation in several of our games,” said Best of the down-to-the wire nature of the game. “It’s a game of possessions and our guys, at times, do great things for periods of times - then we go in funks. We’ve got to find a way to get out of that. Until we do that, we’re not going to move forward like we want to.”

The Cougars victory comes in the first game played in the W. Crawford St. Cougar Den since 2006, and the first time Crestview and Van Wert have met on that floor since the 1970s.

“It was a great team win,” said Bagley. “Crestview is a great team. They’re well-coached and they had us well defended. We just made one more play.”

The contest was all Knights out of the gate. Crestview got five points from Sheets and four from sophomore forward Javin Etzler to run out to a 9-3 lead and force a Cougar timeout. Sophomore point guard Drew Kline then added five points of his own to help the Knights seize a 17-9 lead after a quarter of play.

Things only got worse for Van Wert to start the second quarter. A Stout layup, an old-fashioned 3-point-play from junior guard Grant Schlagbaum and an Etzler bucket ran the Knight lead to 11, 22-11.

Van Wert then began to chip away when senior guard Dylan Lautzenheiser hit a three to stem the tide. A basket from sophomore guard Nate Place and a single Kelly free throw cut the Crestview lead to five, 22-17.

Baskets from Etzler and sophomore guard Derick Dealey ran the Crestview lead to 10 with the quarter winding down.

The most pivotal moments of the game were split between halves. Kelly drilled a 3-pointer in the closing moments of the second quarter, and Lautzenheiser added a layup at the buzzer to cut the Knight lead to five, 28-23, at the break.

The Cougars kept the momentum rolling on the other side of halftime, with another Kelly three and a Place layup to tie the game at 28.

“We were down seven and the rebound basket at the buzzer to cut it to five (was huge). Then we go 5-0 right away (to open the third). From there it was back-and-forth. They made plays. We made plays. It came down to the little things. (Friday) night (in an overtime loss to Ottawa-Glandorf) we missed free throws and tonight we made them - for the most part,” said Bagley.

Fittingly, both teams shot 45 percent from the field. The Knights shot 42 percent from 3-point range to Van Wert’s 31 percent, but the biggest differential was at the free throw line. Van Wert connected on 9-of-13 at the line. While Crestview was perfect in only three attempts.

“There’s definitely growth in a lot of areas. But, you’re not going to play a perfect game - we know that. With our guys and with them continuing to be youthful in some situations, we just have to keep coaching those situations up,” said Best.

The win moves the Cougars to 5-4 on the season. Along with Kelly’s 20 points, Place and Lautzenheiser each added 10. Sophomore forward Drew Bagley added seven points to round out the Cougar scoring.

The loss drops Crestview to 5-3 on the season. They were led in scoring by Etzler, with 11 points. Sheets added 10 and Stout recorded eight points.

***

CRESTVIEW (44)

Wade Sheets 3-5 2-2 10, Drew Kline 3-5 0-0 7, Javin Etzler 5-13 0-0 11, Spencer Rolsten 0-2 0-0 0, Derek Stout 4-9 0-0 8, Grant Schlagbaum 2-3 1-1 6, Trevor Gibson 0-0 0-0 0, Braden Van Cleave 0-1 0-0 0, Derick Dealey 1-2 0-0 0.

VAN WERT (47)

Jacoby Kelly 5-9 7-8 20, Nate Place 5-9 0-0 10, Nick Gutierrez 0-1 0-1 0, Dylan Lautzenheiser 4-8 1-2 10, Drew Bagley 3-7 1-2 7, Blake Henry 0-4 0-0 0, Matthew Reichert 0-0 0-0 0.

Crestview 17 11 7 11 - 44

Van Wert 9 14 14 10 - 47

3-Point Field Goals: CV 5 (Sheets 2, Kline, Etzler Schlagbaum), VW 4 (Kelly 3, Lautzenheiser); Rebounds: CV 18 (Etzler 8, Kline 5), VW 20 (Lautzenheiser 7, Kelly 6). JV Score: 42-33 Crestview