Feb. 10—Friday night's game at Northwestern turned like a light switch.
Northwestern's boys basketball team went into halftime up nine points on Whitko after playing the better ball throughout the opening 16 minutes. The Tiger lead was as high as 11 points before Whitko's Kyler Krull scored the last two points of the half with a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 33-24 at halftime.
The second half was a different story entirely. Krull quickly scored the half's first two baskets and Whitko went on to score the first 11 points of the third quarter to take the lead for good. The Wildcats kept tightening their grip from there to beat Northwestern 55-40.
Northwestern scored just two points in the third quarter, getting outscored 20-2 in the frame and going into the fourth down 44-35 — a reversal of Northwestern's nine-point lead at halftime.
"They were more physical than us," NW coach Jim Gish said of the second half. "They did a nice job of walling up, taking everything away from the rim, and we were standing around a lot. We didn't move very well without the basketball. We played right into their hands. The physicality really changed things up."
Whitko limited Northwestern to just seven points in the second half on 1-of-15 shooting. The Tigers were 5 of 8 from the line after halftime. Whitko coach Chris Benedict pointed to defensive changes designed to stymie Northwestern's Preston Sims and Kellen Greer. They had combined for 21 of Northwestern's 33 points in the opening half.
"The big thing was we picked up our pressure a little bit more," Benedict said. "We moved [Jaylen] Gibson to their best guy, [Sims]. We kind of just face guarded him and [Greer] and made some of the other guys have to make some plays, and that kind of worked in our favor.
"Once we got a couple stops, we were able to get some easier baskets, our confidence started going and played a heck of a lot better in the second half."
At halftime, Sims had 12 points for Northwestern on 5-of-8 shooting and Greer had nine points with three triples in the second quarter. Whitko held them scoreless in the second half.
"I think just understanding what needed to be done to counter that physicality was a little bit challenging," Gish said.
After opening the third quarter with an 11-0 run, Whitko put the game away with a 9-0 run to start the fourth quarter, pushing its lead to 53-35 before Northwestern finally notched a field goal on a post hoop by Blake Wise.
Whitko was 14 of 19 from the field in the second half and 1 of 1 from the line. Gish pointed to turnovers as a problem after halftime.
"Well, our turnovers led to their offense," he said. "I think we had five turnovers in the first half and we had 10 or 11 in the second half. When you turn the ball over like that, it leads into easy opportunities on the other end, now [the Wildcats] get into the flow of the offense, so it's hard to stop things when they get into the flow."
Whitko was crisper on defense and offense in the second half, and the difference was noticeable in the first minute of the third quarter.
"We got it with the first pick," Benedict said. "Jalen got a steal right off the bat with the first possession and we come down and score it, got another good stop, got another score, so we start to gain some confidence at that point in time. Then, once we got the lead, it was like our guys are a little into it and their guys are shell shocked a little bit.
"And then we were able to get the ball to the right spots at the right time and take advantage of them having to overplay [defensively], got some back-cut layups. We were able to get the ball into the paint and out for 3s. The big thing is we kept guarding, kept guarding and kept rebounding and didn't give them a chance to get back into it with second-chance opportunities."
Blake Wise added 10 points for the Tigers. Northwestern fell to 10-6 and the loss snapped the Tigers' four-game winning streak. The Tigers and Wildcats will be conference rivals next season when Northwestern joins the Three Rivers Conference.
On the other side, Whitko's senior duo of 6-foot-5 Sam Essegian and 6-6 Krull operated at a high level. A pair of interchangeable go-anywhere forwards, they combined for 37 points.
"They can shoot it, they post really well, they look for each other really well, and they look for others when they get it. They're not selfish. That brings on its own challenges," Gish said of Essegian and Krull.
Guard Riley Harman added 12 points for Whitko (14-3).