Van Wert senior Nate Place is fouled as he puts up a lay up during the Cougars’ upset victory over Wauseon Friday night. (DHI Media/ Reid Maus)
Van Wert senior Nate Place is fouled as he puts up a lay up during the Cougars’ upset victory over Wauseon Friday night. (DHI Media/ Reid Maus)
FINDLAY — Turn back the clock nearly one year and the Cougars are leaving the District Semi-Finals at Ohio Northern University defeated and knocked out of the state tournament thanks to Wauseon, who were, at the time, ranked number one in the state. The same couldn’t be true for Friday night as the Cougs took down the second seeded Indians in dramatic fashion to win the Sectional title and punch their ticket to another district berth.

Wauseon was ranked fifth in the state in the final AP poll nearly two weeks ago. You would have to go back all the way to the Feb. 9 St. Henry matchup for the last time that Van Wert played a state ranked opponent. The result of that game was the furthest thing from pretty, as the Cougs were dominated 51-26. But as Coaches will often tell you, losses are better learning moments than wins.

“We came back from the St. Henry game, where they killed us and we had a great meeting,” said Van Wert Head Coach Mark Bagley. “We talked about our sectional draw the next day and they wanted to go to Wauseon. So I listened to them and I said we’re going there no matter what.”

Their answer? “Let’s go.”

From the onset it didn’t look like Van Wert was going to be cutting down nets at the end of the night. In fact the Cougars found themselves down 25-7 through a quarter and a half.

“Our kids did some uncharacteristic things to get down,” said Bagley. “We were actually pretty calm at halftime. The key was that we got it to [a 10 point deficit] at half. I told them that at St. Henry we were down by 21 at half when we played like this, we were down 10 tonight so we were in good shape.”

Coach Bagley said he challenged the team to cut the deficit in half to start the second half.

The Cougs did much better than just cut the lead in half.

Right off the back, Van Wert scored a five point run, thanks to a bucket by Lawson Blackmore and a triple from Nate Place, which pressured Wauseon to call a time out. Out of the break it didn’t get better for the Indians, as Van Wert continued to lay on the pressure. Nate Place got a steal, made the lay up and was fouled in transition— though he missed his free throw.

The Indians tried their best but they couldn’t keep pace with the Cougs. Drew Bagley continued Van Wert’s run scoring with his own 3-pointer which put Van Wert within one, 28-27. The Indians responded by scoring on consecutive trips down the floor. Then it happened— the Cougars finally took the lead.

Down 32-27, Van Wert fed the ball down low to Blackmore. The senior made the heavily contested short range shot, despite being fouled. Blackmore went to the line, his shot missed but banged off the iron and into Owen Treece’s hands who drove baseline for a reverse lay up. On the subsequent drive, Place, once again in transition, made a lay up and finally gave the Cougs the lead at 33-32. A lead they wouldn’t give up for the rest of the game— though they did practically everything they could to do so.

For the remainder of the game three statements would hold truth. One, the Cougars were red-hot offensively. Two, Van Wert never seemed to get a ‘big-time stop’ until the end of the game. And three, Van Wert was horrendous from the free-throw line.

After scoring 17 points in the first half, this Coach Bagley led team exploded for 40 points in the second, 27 of which came in the third period. Though the offense was clicking, the Cougs were very un-philanthropic, as they missed five straight potential game clinching shots from the charity stripe. On top of this, the fourth quarter was a seesaw battle. For each basket the Cougars made, the Indians responded. At least, until the end.

After minutes of not putting the game away, the Cougars finally got two big stops, the latter of which closed the game out. After Place failed to connect on another 3-point-play, the Indians were down four. Trent Armstrong came down and nailed a triple to put the game within one with under 15 seconds remaining in the game. The Cougars got the ball to their best shooter, Drew Bagley on the inbounds pass, Wauseon fouls him and the Van Wert senior missed both double bonus- free throws to give Wauseon one last chance.

The Indians elected to pass the ball into Trent Armstrong, who led the game with 20 points, but the senior stepped on the baseline to give Van Wert the ball and the game. Bagley made two free-throws and the rest was history. Van Wert got revenge on Wauseon beating them 57-53.

“It’s kind of surreal right now,” said Bagley following the win. “A great team like Wauseon, they’re so well coached and so fundamental, but we found a way. All the credit goes to our kids. We’re not done yet. I told the guys that this isn’t the highlight of our year.”

Van Wert will travel to Ada to play Defiance at Ohio Northern University next Wednesday. The Cougs defeated the Bulldogs in the last game of the regular season.

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VAN WERT (57)

Owen Treece 15 pts; Drew Bagley 11 pts; Nate Place 13 pts; Blake Henry 9 pts; Lawson Blackmore 9 pts

WAUSEON (54)

Trent Armstong 20 pts; Levi Seiler 15 pts; Sean Brock 12 pts; Noah Tester 5 pts; Trevor Rodriguez 1 pts

Van Wert 6 11 23 17 - 57

Wauseon 13 14 9 17 - 54