COLUMBUS GROVE — Columbus Grove is not quite ready to relinquish its hold on the Northwest Conference title.
Behind a tenacious defensive effort add the precision perimeter shooting of Rylee Sybert, the three-time defending NWC champion Bulldogs bumped off Bluffton 56-38 in a big NWC showdown Thursday night.
With the win, Columbus Grove (12-2) moves into a three-way tie at the top of the conference by handing Bluffton (12-3) its first NWC loss. Columbus Grove is 4-1 and Bluffton is 5-1 in the conference. Spencerville, which bumped off Allen East, 43-31, is 4-1 in the NWC.
“This one meant a lot,” Columbus Grove head coach Brian Schroeder said. “We knew this was going to be a tough game for us and if we wanted to still to take a share of the NWC championship it would go through Bluffton and we would have to come our with a win tonight.”
Schroeder said he threw a number of defensive looks at Bluffton throughout the night and maintained a man press and wanted to extend the pressure to not only force turnovers put push the tempo of the game.
“Amy Vorst and Abby Gladwell really did a nice job of throwing Bluffton out of rhythm and we were able generate some turnovers which led to some baskets then we got into a little bit of foul trouble and Bluffton was starting to find a rhythm so we went back to our 2-2-1 and 2-3 zone.”
Columbus Grove’s Sydney Witteborg, Erin Downing and Abby Gladwell combined for nine steals.
Bluffton head coach Eric Garmatter said Columbus Grove took away a lot of the things the Pirates do on offense but added that it came down to his team not producing defensively.
“We have to play better defensive,” Garmatter said. “I haven’t seen the stats yet but I don’t think we rebounded very well and we didn’t do team defense where we are supposed to be helping out. They exposed a lot of things and they made shots and we didn’t.”
From the opening tip, Columbus Grove was all over Bluffton with constant defensive pressure and the move paid off early when the Bulldogs opened up a 14-6 lead after the first quarter. In the first eight minutes, Bluffton committed seven turnovers.
The trend continued in the second half. It seemed like any time a Bluffton player touched the ball they were flanked by Bulldogs and the Pirates faltered to gain any semblance of an offensive rhythm.
By halftime, Columbus Grove owned a 26-15 advantage.
Bluffton appeared to break out of its offensive funk at the onset of the second half when they outscored Columbus Grove 9-4 to open the third quarter to slice the lead to 30-24 at the 4:19 mark.
However, behind a couple of treys from Sybert, the Bulldogs answered with an 11-0 run to up the lead to 41-24 with less than a minute to go. A late 3-pointer by Alivia Koenig ended the third period with Columbus Grove leading 41-27.
Scoring the first nine points of the fourth quarter put the game away for Columbus Grove who went up 50-31 with 4:36 left in the game.
“Hitting shots helped,” Schroeder said about his team’s third quarter offensive surge. “I told our girls we have to look to score because at times this year we have been very hesitant,” Schroeder said. “Last couple of weeks we have been drilling it in their heads, ‘take the shot.’
Sybert, who coincidentally did not score a point in the fourth quarter, finished with a game-high 22 points and she dished out four assists. Angel Schnieder finished with 11 points with 10 of those coming in the final period.
“She is a three-year starter and we have a lot of good players but if I had to pick one she is our best player so when your best player shows up like she did in big games that helps,” Schroeder said. “She’s hitting shots, getting to the rim and doing a lot of great things.
For the game, Columbus Grove hit 47 percent from treyland and was 51 percent from the floor.
Bluffton’s Averey Rumor pumped in 15 points and Koenig and Libby Schaadt each chipped in 10 points.
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-0468.