By SCOTT COTTOS
VAN BUREN — It didn’t come as easily as it might have, but Van Buren’s boys basketball team was able to tuck another game into the Blanchard Valley Conference win column.
A lead that stood at 14 points early in the fourth quarter dwindled to three on two occasions in the fourth quarter, but the Black Knights were able to hang on and defeat a feisty McComb squad 57-53 on Wednesday night.
Matthew Ayers dropped in a game-high 23 points and Van Buren made 6 of 8 free throws in the final 34 seconds to raise its record to 8-4 overall and 5-0 in the BVC. The Knights sit at the top of the conference standings by percentage points over Pandora-Gilboa (4-0) and North Baltimore (3-0), which will meet at P-G on Friday night.
McComb got 13 points apiece from Jacob Rider and Koby Gustwiller while falling to 4-8 overall and 2-3 in conference play.
“In the fourth quarter, it was a gut check for us,” Van Buren coach Tyler Niekamp said. “I’m just happy that we were able to come out on top.
“I’m happy that we got another conference win. We’ve been in a situation before where we let the game slip away, so I am happy that we found a way to win. We were able to step up and get some stops in the fourth quarter and make some free throws down the stretch, so I’m happy about that.”
Gustwiller dropped in eight of his points in the fourth quarter to key the Panthers’ rally, which wasn’t snuffed out until the Black Knights cashed in from the free throw line in the late going.
McComb coach Nick Latta was proud of the grit his team showed after falling into a double-digit deficit.
“We could have packed it in, but our guys don’t do that,” he said. “Early in the year, we would have packed it in. We’d have been done. Now we’re playing better, we’ve got a lot of confidence in ourselves and we’re going to play hard until the end.”
After trailing 26-14 at halftime, the Panthers found themselves down 30-16 2 minutes into the third period. They pecked away at the lead, however, and a Gustwiller basket cut the gap to 40-37 with 5:44 to go in the game.
Van Buren’s lead stood at 49-39 when the Knights’ Connor Ohlrich split a pair of free throws with 1:52 remaining. But Gustwiller later drained a pair of treys in a 22-second span to cut the count to 51-47 with 42 seconds to play.
Though Justin Wasson made a 3-pointer with 8.8 seconds to go, Ayers made three free throws, Kade Steveson made two and Ohlrich added one to keep McComb at bay. Tanner Schroeder made a long triple as time expired to account for the final margin.
“I thought in the first half, our effort defensively was really, really good,” Niekamp said. “They did a good job in the third quarter of getting back in the game and getting us in some matchups that weren’t very favorable for us.”
Latta said the key to his team’s rally was as simple as “just shooting the ball well — getting into our shots and stepping in and knocking them down.”
He added: “We’ve got a lot of guys who can score on our team. We had 14 points at halftime and we can’t have that. We’ve got to score more than that.”
Steveson followed Ayers with 15 points for Van Buren, which enjoyed a 38-18 rebounding advantage.
Wasson scored 11 points for the Panthers. Rider latched onto five rebounds and Gustwiller passed for five assists.
MCCOMB (4-8, 2-3 BVC)
Schroeder 2-5–10, Rider 3-6–13, J. Wasson 4-2–11, Sherick 2-0–4, Gustwiller 5-0″”13, Dillon 0-0–0, K. Wasson 0-2–2. TOTALS: 16-48 15-18 — 53.
van buren (8-4, 5-0 BVC)
Beitzel 0-0–0, Ayers 8-6–23, Steveson 4-7–15, Kramer 1-0–2, Iliff 4-0–8, Goble 0-0–0, Ohlrich 0-8–8, Warren 0-0–0. TOTALS: 17-42 21-35 — 57.
McComb 7 7 19 20 — 53
Van Buren 10 16 12 19 — 57
3-Point GOALS: McComb 6-18 (Gustwiller 3, Rider 2, J. Wasson 1); Van Buren 2-13 (Ayers & Kramer 1).
rebounds: McComb 18 (Rider 5); Van Buren 38.
turnovers: McComb 13; Van Buren 14.
junior varsity: Van Buren, 36-26.