WOOSTER — A familiar problem crept up on Oberlin at the most inopportune time.
The Phoenix got off to a slow start in the Division III Wooster district championship game against Northwestern, but unlike numerous regular-season games, Oberlin was not able to dig out of its hole.
The Huskies jumped out to a big early lead and cruised to a 66-51 win at Wooster High School, capturing the rematch of the Phoenix’s 74-69 upset win in the district semifinal last season.
“That’s been our Achilles heel, starting off slow,” Oberlin coach Kurt Russell said. “Northwestern jumped on us, and that was our fear coming into the game, if we started slow it would be difficult for us to come back against a very quality ballclub.
“That’s what happened. We tried to claw our way back in, but we shot the ball poorly tonight.”
The Huskies opened the game on a 16-2 run and led 21-7 at the end of the first quarter as Oberlin hit just 3 of 12 shots from the floor in the first quarter.
“We thought we were prepared coming into the game, but they came out stronger than we did and that’s been a problem for us our whole careers,” Oberlin center Donald Johnson said. “I think today we just got too deep in the hole and couldn’t dig ourselves out of it.”
Poor shooting hindered the Phoenix (19-7) all night.
Despite Johnson winning the battle with 6-foot-9 Bowling Green recruit Derek Koch, outscoring him 23-11, the rest of the Phoenix couldn’t get on track.
Johnson hit 11-of-17 from the floor while the rest of the team was just 8-of-40 from the field.
“We couldn’t score anything tonight,” Russell said. “I think we missed a lot of free throws, a lot of layups … it was just one of those games where it just spiraled down on the offensive end. We cut it to seven and I thought our defense could pick up to get some easy transition, but it never happened.”
Oberlin cut the Northwestern lead to 10 points at halftime, 27-17, and pulled within seven points, 32-25, with 2:38 left in the third quarter, but every time they would get a stop at one end, they would misfire from the field at the other.
“We felt like we had taken their best shot when we were down 12-2 and thought we would get ourselves out,” Johnson said. “We just couldn’t dig ourselves out of it. Maybe we started feeling a little shook by being down and how big of a game it was, but we kept our cool the entire time. We were positive we could come back.”
The Huskies (20-5) used a 9-2 run early in the fourth quarter to put the game away. After scoring a combined 20 points in the second and third quarters, Northwestern put 25 points on the board in the fourth to pull away.
Senior guard Parker Smith paced the Huskies with 25 points while Koch added 19 rebounds to his 11 points.
“I give all the credit to Northwestern,” Russell said. “I thought they played a marvelous game tonight.”
Oberlin missed its first 15 3-pointers before Devon Yarber finally connected from beyond the arc with 1:01 left in the game.
That was the plan, according to Huskies’ coach Mark Alberts, who wanted to make someone other than Johnson beat his team.
“We wanted to make them make some perimeter shots, and they didn’t make one until the end of the game,” he said. “Donald Johnson, we knew he could make perimeter shots, and the shots he made tonight … he made some great ones. I don’t think people realize how good he is.”
Despite his team failing to defend its district title, Russell has great memories of this group.
“I’m proud of them,” he said. “I’m going to miss these boys. Most of them played as freshmen, their freshmen and sophomore years we took some lumps and knew it was going to be a process. The kids stuck with the program and by their junior year they did some pretty good things.
“I thought this year we did some pretty good things. We didn’t accomplish our goals, but I’m still proud of them.”
Northwestern 66, Oberlin 51
NORTHWESTERN (66): Trevor Kline 2-0-6, Parker Smith 7-8-25, Jacob Bensancon 2-4-8, Derek Darnell 2-0-4, Derek Koch 3-5-11, Mason Willhelmy 4-0-8, Jared Alberts 0-0-0. Totals 20-21-66.
OBERLIN (51): Dave Payne 0-0-0, Justin Smith 2-3-7, Caleb Hughley 1-2-4, Kurt Russell Jr. 0-0-0, Donald Johnson 11-1-23, Daunte Bowens 0-0-0, Zion Hicks 4-0-8, Devan Yarber 1-2-5, Mark Robinson Jr. 0-4-4. Totals 19-12-51.
Northwestern 21 6 14 25 — 66
Oberlin 7 10 13 21 — 51
Three-point goals: Northwestern 5-15 (P. Smith 3, Kline 2), Oberlin 1-16 (Yarber). Field goals: Northwestern 20-41 (49 percent), Oberlin 19-57 (33.3 percent); Free throws: Northwestern 21-28 (75 percent), Oberlin 12-24 (50 percent); Rebounds: Northwestern 44 (Koch 19), Oberlin 24 (Hughley 5). Turnovers: Northwestern 22, Oberlin 7. Total fouls: Northwestern 20, Oberlin 22. Fouled out: Hicks.