MONROEVILLE — Right about the time Heritage’s Wil Knapke banked in a pair of three-pointers in the fourth quarter, Bluffton was glad it had already built a comfortable lead. The defending-champion Tigers held off the host Patriots 51-47 in the first round of the ACAC tournament Tuesday.
Knapke got two bank shots from beyond the arc – one of which was a missed free throw away from a four-point play – as the Patriots rallied from a double-digit deficit and got within 49-45 with 18 seconds remaining.
“We knew we were going to have to make our free throws down the stretch,” Bluffton senior guard Chandler Prible said.
Bluffton converting 11 of 13 free throws in the fourth.
Trailing 26-24 early in the third, the Tigers went on a 12-0 run that lasted into the fourth.
“Things started going our way,” Prible said. “We got some stops and scored, and that changed things in our favor. It was a good stretch for us.”
It was that run that gave the Tigers the aforementioned comfort zone.
“That was the turning point in the game,” Heritage coach Brad Kiess said.
“It was a good game to that point. It allowed them to take some time off the clock, and it made us more aggressive on defense, and at some point in the fourth we had to foul. They are too good of foul shooters to have to do that to.
Bluffton (7-4) plays Southern Wells (4-6) at 7:30 p.m. today in the semifinals at Memorial Coliseum.
Prible had 16 points for the Tigers, Michael Pearson 12 and Matthew Sturgeon 11.
“This tournament means a lot to us every year,” Prible said.
“It doesn’t depreciate in value just because we get to the Coliseum a lot. We want to win it every year.”
Zac Toles led Heritage (5-7) with 16 points, while Knapke added 12, eight in the fourth.
After hitting 7 of 11 from the field in the first, Heritage came up dry in the middle two quarters, making only 4 of 17.
“(Heritage coach) Brad (Kiess) will tell you they didn’t play well offensively, but we had a lot to do with that,” Bluffton coach Kevin Leising said.
“We controlled the pace in the second half, wire to wire.”
Kiess said it was more a matter of what Heritage didn’t do rather than what Bluffton did.
“We wanted to get a lead and then go to our spread offense where we are in control,” Kiess said. “We thought if we got to that point, they would have a hard time guarding us. It’s one of our strengths, but we just couldn’t do that once we got behind.”
After losing 7-footer Keith Cochran to graduation this year, an undersized Tigers squad has had to learn to play defense differently.
“It’s really starting to come together (defensively),” Prible said. “It’s taken a little longer this year to figure things out. Now we are really limiting teams to just one shot.”