By Pat Magers
COLUMBUS - Bruce Smith could have asked for a better start, but it might have been embarrassing to do so.
Opportunity has never knocked harder for Toledo Whitmer basketball and the Panthers are on the brink if they can follow through. The first of the two-part challenge was completed Friday with a 62-51 win over Lakewood St. Edward in a Division I state semifinal at Value City Arena.
The follow-up is at 8:30 p.m. when the Panthers take on Pickerington Central, a 60-45 winner over Fairfield in Friday's second game. If Whitmer can succeed, it will mark the school's first basketball state title in four tries.
Against St. Ed, the 24-2 Panthers had virtually everything going their way. The Eagles (18-8) had seven team fouls in less than six minutes of a physical matchup. They managed to hit just one of their first 14 shots and committed six first-quarter turnovers.
The result was a 15-2 first-period lead for Whitmer that eventually became a 22-2 edge when Luke Hickey capped a 6-0 start to the second frame with a layup with 5:08 left in the half.
"Obviously, the 22-2 start was really big," said Smith, who had a team reach the state semifinal in 2008. Whitmer also reached the state tourney in 1987 and 1931 but had never made it to the title game before today.
"They are way too good of a team to expect that you could get a lead like that," Smith said.
Holding that margin was another matter and the Panthers were up to that as well. But not before Myles Hamilton provided a few anxious moments.
Hamilton, who finished with 24 points, five rebounds and two assists, scored seven of those in the final 4:41 of the half to help the Eagles into range at 26-12.
Then he added eight more points in the third period and with Mike Newton and Mark Murray adding 3-pointers, St. Edward rallied to within 32-28 with 3:35 left in the third.
The Panthers held that charge but watched another develop early in the fourth period as Myles Hamilton hit two foul shots and Marsalis Hamilton added a putback to trim the lead to 40-37 with 7:04 to play.
Whitmer's one-two punch of Nigel Hayes and Leroy Alexander came to the rescue.
First Hayes (18 points, 13 rebounds, six assists) hit three foul shots. Then Alexander (17 points, seven boards) drove the lane for two and later fed Ricardo Smith for a three-point play to push the margin back to 10 at 48-38.
The best the Eagles could do from there was when Myles Hamilton scored seven straight in a 32-second span. The last basket made it 54-49 with 1:58 left.
With the Eagles forced to foul, Whitmer kept its distance.
"When you only score two points in the first quarter, it's tough," St. Ed coach Eric Flannery said. "We tried to get to the basket, but we couldn't get anything.
"We had some momentum a couple times, but every time we'd get to that point, we couldn't get over the hump," he said.
Whitmer got no scoring, three fouls and three turnovers combined from its bench. Only senior Storm Norton, a 6-foot-8 post, saw significant time. He played 11 minutes.
"Fatigue isn't so much of a concern as maybe foul trouble," Smith said. "At tournament time, the bench gets a little shorter. I told the guys yesterday that this is a state championship game.
"You don't worry about playing two games," he said. "You worry about this game and if we get through it, we'll find a way to get through (today)."
Central wins battle of newcomers
It was a first-time experience for both Pickerington Central and Fairfield when the two battled in Friday's Division I second game. Neither had ever advanced beyond the regional tournament in years past.
Thanks to the inside-outside combo of Jae'Sea Tate and Caris LeVert, Central extends the experience tonight.
The 6-foot-4 Tate scored 16 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and had five blocks while LeVert, a second-team All-Ohio selection, added 13 points, two assists and three steals.
There were no real dominant moments for the Tigers (25-2), who opened a 16-14 first-quarter lead and edged a little farther ahead at each stop. Central stretched the final margin with six foul shots and a breakaway layup in the final 1:51.
"They are long, athletic, tough, physical and well-coached," Fairfield coach Tim Austing said after his club bowed out at 21-6. "We just couldn't overcome all the things that they do."
The Indians stayed in striking distance through most of the game despite the early and frequent foul trouble for 6-foot-7 Brandon Murphy, the team's only regular taller than 6-feet.
Murphy scored 10 points in his 19 minutes of action.
When Murphy sat, 5-foot-10 Devon Barlow stepped up. Barlow finished with 11 points and totaled eight offensive rebounds.
Barlow's scoring drive and foul shot pulled the Indians to within 44-38 with 5:56 left.
But Tate grabbed a board and scored before LeVert added two scoring drives and a 15-foot jumper to push the margin to 52-40 with 3:17 to go.
"The jumpers weren't falling for me tonight," LeVert said. "I wanted to get to the hole more because they were falling."
"I think defense was the key to the game for us," said Tate, who is just a sophomore. "We worked on their offensive plays all week long and we were ready."
Central coach Jerry Francis, a former Ohio State standout, said Whitmer poses several challenges for his club.
"They've got great size and toughness," Francis said of tonight's game. "We're going to have to try to match their energy."