ELYRIA — Sterling Benko, one of Vermilion’s 10 seniors, had been struggling from the 3-point line all season.
“Oh-for-15,” Sailors coach Kurt Habermehl said.
But it was Benko’s back-to-back 3-pointers that lit a fire under the Sailors in a 69-53 win over Willard on Thursday night in Sandusky Bay Conference Bay Division play.
“It felt really great, especially after being in a drought all year,” Benko said. “I finally got the monkey off my back.”
“Credit to him,” Habermehl said. “He’s really been struggling from the 3-point line this year.
“He had the confidence to step in and he was a huge boost — six points in about 25 seconds. You couldn’t ask for better minutes from him. I told him he was a catalyst for our second-half run.”
Willard (5-3, 2-2), a young team that started just one senior, hung tough through the first half and the first three minutes of the third quarter. Two free throws from sophomore Myles Pinkston put the Crimson Flashes in front 37-36 with 5:37 left in the quarter.
What happened after that was almost surreal. Vermilion’s defense started to get Willard to turn the ball over and the Sailors (9-2, 5-0) went on a tear, outscoring the Crimson Flashes 20-3 from that point to the end of the quarter. The Sailors made 10 of 19 shots from the floor, including Benko’s spot-up threes from the far left corner.
“We made some adjustments at halftime,” Habermehl said. “We were just off defensively with their drive. We weren’t quite getting all the way over. We made some adjustments and the kids played a great second half.”
Any momentum Willard thought it had went up in smoke during that third-quarter rally that Benko fueled.
“Benko was something we were willing to give up,” Willard coach Joe Bedingfield said. “Credit to him and credit to the Vermilion kids who hit some big shots and rebounded the ball when they needed to. They have 10 seniors on that team and all of them are unselfish.”
Mason Montgomery, who had just five points in the first half, scored nine in the quarter on a pair of 3-pointers and three layups. Jonah Pfeil hit a 3-pointer, as well, that sparked him to a blazing fourth quarter in which he was simply unstoppable going to the basket.
Pfeil and Montgomery teamed for 40 points with Pfeil getting 23. Montgomery also led the rebound charge with 13 — 11 off the defensive glass. Senior point guard Seth Hurd had nine assists, while Pfeil and Montgomery had four each.
“(Willard) has a lot of tall, lengthy guys,” Pfeil said. “We took our time to understand what they were doing. We figured out what was best for us to do and dribble through the gaps and stuff. That worked out real well.”
Pfeil had four straight driving layins after hitting a 3-pointer from the right baseline to push Vermilion’s lead to 69-44 with 4:11 to play.
It mattered little that the Sailors didn’t score again. They didn’t need to.
“When Jonah’s playing like that, we’re pretty tough to beat,” Habermehl said. “(Willard) came into halftime rolling with a little bit of momentum. I thought our kids did a really good job of coming out in the second half and turning the tables a little bit. Give them credit, we have 10 seniors and they didn’t panic. They stuck with what we do.”
Willard started the game in a 1-3-1 zone defense that caused Vermilion to slow down its attack. The Sailors were just 11-of-33 from the field in the first half.
“That got us back on our heels a little bit,” Habermehl said. “Once we started to attack it a little bit and hit a few shots, it seemed to open the flood gates a little bit.”
Vermilion 69, Willard 53
VERMILION (69): Jonah Pfeil 9-2-23, Seth Hurd 3-0-7, Mason Montgomery 7-0-17, Reese Miller 3-1-9, Zach Kovach 2-0-4, Sterling Benko 2-0-6, Luke Pena 1-1-3, Ryan Habermehl 0-0-0, Mark Morris 0-0-0, Davis McDaniel 0-0-0, Kameron Caskey 0-0-0, Matt Saegert 0-0-0, Chad Rich 0-0-0, Zach Jones 0-0-0. Totals 27-4-69.
WILLARD (53): Austin Adelman 2-0-4, Myles Pinkston 6-3-15, Trey Paxton 2-0-4, Davon Triplett 5-0-10, Michah Dawson 0-0-0, Cooper Parrott 4-2-11, Terry Baldridge 1-1-3, Jarrett Sowers 0-2-2, Brevon Polochek 2-0-4. Totals 22-8-53.
Vermilion 13 17 26 13 — 69
Willard 8 22 10 13 — 53
Three-point goals: Vermilion 11-27 (Montgomery 3, Pfeil 3, Miller 2, Benko 2, Hurd), Willard 1-8 (Parrott). Field goals: Vermilion 27-67 (40 percent), Willard 22-54 (40 percent). Free throws: Vermilion 4-7 (57 percent), Willard 8-9 (88 percent). Rebounds: Vermilion 34 (Montgomery 13), Willard 33 (Baldridge 7). Assists: Vermilion 21 (Hurd 9), Willard 14 (Parrott 5). Turnovers: Vermilion 14, Willard 24. Fouls: Vermilion 11. Willard 9.
Junior varsity: Vermilion, 45-22