VERSAILLES – Scott McEldowney asked Alex Wendel to be more aggressive on offense, and the Versailles junior came through in a way big way Friday night.
Wendel sank a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer on Friday as Versailles beat St. Henry 54-51 in a Midwest Athletic Conference game.
“I actually talked to him this week. I said, ‘Alex, I enjoy that you embrace the point guard role and your defense has been really good,’ but I said, ‘you’re a good basketball player. We need you to be a little more aggressive offensively, too,’ because he can get the ball to the basket, and he’s a really good shooter, too,” Coach McEldowney said of Wendel, who averages less than six points a game while dishing out an average of four assists. “So we talked to him about trying to assert himself a little bit more because we thought he was passing up offensive opportunities early on. And hit a big one tonight.”
To set up the game-winning shot, Versailles used three timeouts in the final 30 seconds. St. Henry also used a timeout with 3.2 seconds remaining right after Versailles’ last one to set up its defense.
When the teams returned to the court, Jared Niekamp inbounded the ball to Justin Ahrens directly in front of the Versailles bench. The Tigers’ leading scorer immediately drew two defenders, spun and found a wide-open Wendel for the game winner.
“The play was set to basically Justin can go any which way he wants to off of it, up or down,” Coach McEldowney said. “But he comes off of three screens, and if anybody helps anyone one of those guys can slip out to the 3-point line because we’re all pretty good 3-point shooters or they can slip to the basket for a layup. You know just trying to draw a double team, trying to draw something, and that’s exactly what happened. We were able to get it to Justin. He drew that double-team right away and found Alex wide open, and he took care of the shot.”
To set up the late-game heroics, Versailles had to battle through foul trouble and overcome a nine-point deficit.
Justin Ahrens was among those in foul trouble early. The sophomore averages almost 25 points a game but was limited to just two in the opening half on Friday as he had to sit on the bench for much of the first two quarters.
Other players stepped up including Jared Niekamp, who came off the bench to score five points in the first quarter.
“We got some phenomenal minutes from our bench players when we were in so much trouble in the first half,” Coach McEldowney said. “We’ve got a lot of different guys who can do some things, that’s for sure. (Jared Niekamp) did a nice job again tonight.”
Brett McEldowney also added five first quarter points, and Keaton McEldowney scored four as the Tigers held a 14-11 lead through the first eight minutes.
Neither team got much offense in the second quarter, but points from Austin Knapke, AJ Ahrens and Justin Ahrens helped Versailles maintain a 22-20 lead going into halftime.
“It’s tough that first half because I’m like we’re in foul trouble, we’re up by two, and we just sit back,” Coach McEldowney said. “And I could just see in the kids’ eyes that let’s go do our half-court press. They still wanted to go up. We let it ride for a little bit, and then we went ahead and tried to go get them right before half.”
St. Henry’s Mitchel Stammen heated up in the second half and scored 16 of his game-high 36 points in the third quarter to help the visitors take their first lead since early in the opening quarter. After leading by as many as nine points, St. Henry went in the fourth quarter up 40-33.
Versailles chipped away at St. Henry’s lead with Jared Niekamp, Wendel and Brett McEldowney each scoring early in the fourth quarter. Justin Ahrens hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 4:04 remaining, and it was a one-possession game the rest of the way.
With 1:08 remaining Mitchel Stammen drained two free throws to tie the game at 51-51. Both teams then missed an opportunity to go ahead before Versailles set up for the game winner on its final possession.
The poise Versailles showed to overcome St. Henry’s fourth quarter lead and come away with the win is something Coach McEldowney didn’t see in his young team earlier in the season.
“These kids have grown up a lot and very quickly,” Coach McEldowney said. “Because you know there was a lot more frustration during adversity early on in season, there was you know down on themselves more, sometimes even grinding a little bit back and forth. We’ve found ourselves down in some games like that, and I just don’t see it any more. I see them encouraging each other, I see them working together, you know heart and embracing the challenge to get back in the game because they know at any time they can get a couple big steals, hit a couple big shots and put them right back in the game. I’m glad that they have that confidence. Let’s hope we’re not in that position much more. I’d rather play with the lead instead.”
Justin Ahrens and Jared Niekamp led Versailles with 10 points each in Friday’s victory. Also for the Tigers, Brett McEldowney scored eight, Keaton McEldowney scored eight, Wendel scored eight, AJ Ahrens scored six, and Knapke scored four.
Mitchel Stammen led St. Henry with his game-high 36 while Jesse Niekamp scored nine, Blake Hoyng scored three, Paul Stammen scored two, and Ryan Luttmer scored one.
Versailles improved to 10-1 overall and 4-0 in the MAC with Friday’s win while St. Henry dropped to 7-4 overall and 1-2 in the MAC.
The Tigers will return to action on Tuesday when they play host to Tippecanoe.