Wolverines squander halftime lead, get upset by 5-seed Bennett, 70-65

OBSERVER Photo by Roger Coda Westfield’s Ryan Jafarjian (24) goes up for a contested layup during their Class C2 quarterfinal game on Friday in Westfield.

WESTFIELD — The Westfield Wolverines had plenty of reasons to smile at halftime on Friday night at Westfield Academy, with a 12-point halftime lead over the Bennett Tigers in the sectional playoffs.

In the end, it turns out Westfield needed just a few more smile-worthy moments to move ahead in the playoff bracket.

The Westfield Wolverines lost Friday night’s Section VI, Class C2 boys basketball quarterfinal game to the visiting Bennett Tigers, 70-65, at Westfield Academy.

Westfield (14-7, 4-seed) jumped ahead 7-2 in the first three minutes of play on a 3-pointer by Nathan Culbreth. The Wolverines led 9-2 before Bennett (7-10, 5-seed) answered with eight straight points to lead 10-9. Bennett led 14-13 with three minutes left in the first quarter, but Westfield scored the period’s final four points, capped off by a stunning bounce pass by Culbreth to Dylan Scriven for a layup with 1:17 left, to hold a 17-13 lead after the first quarter.

“Early on, offensively we were fine. Defensively, we were too close,” said Westfield coach Bob North. “We played way too tight and they got a lot of easy layups early.”

OBSERVER Photo by Roger Coda Westfield’s Colby Bills (left) goes up strong for a layup during a Class C2 boys basketball quarterfinal playoff game Friday in Westfield.

Bennett tied the game at 17 early in the second quarter on a rim-rattling slam dunk from Lamont Pulliam off of a steal in the backcourt. Westfield’s Evan Hauser answered the other way with a quick layup, but Pulliam slammed it home once again on the next possession to tie it up at 19-all. Halfway through the second quarter, Westfield held a slim one-point lead over Bennett, 24-23.

Over the next three minutes, Westfield played one of its best stretches of basketball all season long. Junior varsity call-up Darien Swanson drilled a 3-pointer with 3:31 left in the half to put Westfield up by four, then Culbreth drilled a 3-pointer of his own with just under three minutes left in the half to balloon the lead to eight points. When it was all said and done, Westfield went on a 13-0 run from the middle of the second quarter to a minute left in the half. The Wolverines led 40-28 at halftime.

“I told (my team), we have 40 points at the half. If we score another 40 points, we’re going to be smiling,” said North.

As stellar of a run as Westfield closed the first half on, Bennett had an even more impressive answer. In the first half of the third quarter, Bennett went on a 14-2 run, punctuated by a thundering alley-oop slam by Pulliam in transition to tie the game at 42-apiece. Both teams traded blows evenly the rest of the third quarter, with the score locked at 50-50 after the third frame.

“We came out in the third quarter and we just lost our heads. They tried to speed us up, we let them speed us up. Instead of throwing it to the open guy, we tried to throw it to covered guys,” said North. “When we take care of the ball we win, when we don’t, we lose.”

Both Westfield and Bennett stayed within single digits the entire fourth quarter. Bennett had a five-point lead, 65-60, with 57.3 seconds left as Westfield’s Ryan Jafarjian stepped to the free-throw line to shoot a pair. Jafarjian missed the first but made the second, to cut the deficit to four. The visiting Tigers then missed both free-throws on their next possession, and on the rebound, they fouled Westfield’s Andrew Baribeau to send the junior big man to the line for a one-and-one. Baribeau calmly made both free-throws to bring Westfield within two points.

Bennett made a pair of free-throws on their next possession for a four-point lead with under 40 seconds left, but Westfield had a pair of opportunities to cut the deficit to just one. Hauser had an open look from behind the arc bounce off the rim, then after Westfield got the offensive rebound and found Hauser again, his redemption shot rolled around the rim and out.

“Normally that’s the guy we want to get the ball to,” said North of Hauser. “He missed one, we got the ball right back to him and he got another good look. If one of those falls, we’re down one, we’re smiling. Sometimes shots fall, sometimes they don’t.”

Bennett extended the lead to five points on the next possession and closed the game out from the free-throw line.

“We just didn’t really execute at the end of the game,” said North. “I asked them to do three things — play hard, play smart and play together. We played hard, at times we played together, but there were times we did things I just didn’t understand.”

For Westfield, it was a tough way to end one of the most successful seasons the Wolverines have had in many years. Westfield captured its first undisputed league title since 2000 this season, to go with a sweep of division rival Sherman, the defending league champion. Westfield finishes just one win shy of an appearance at Jamestown Community College.

“It was a good year, but I always say I’d like to get beat by a better team, and I don’t know if that happened tonight,” North said after Friday’s loss. “All in all, we had a pretty nice year, and we’ll have a lot of kids coming back to build on next year.”

NOTES: Culbreth and Baribeau were the high scorers from Westfield with 14 points each. Jafarjian added 11 points of his own. Baribeau also had eight rebounds, while the Wolverines had 32 total rebounds as a team. The Wolverines shot just 3-20 from 3-point range. … Bennett had a game-high 28 points from Pulliam, with another 16 points from Austin Grimes, 13 points from Davon Scott and 11 points from Jiheed Robinson.