La PORTE — Both La Porte and Merrillville had suffered painfully-close Duneland Athletic Conference losses this season.
The Pirates found a way to break through Friday, while extending the Slicers' misery.
After seeing a 14-point, third-quarter lead evaporate, Merrillville responded with a critical 11-3 run in the last three minutes to prevail over short-handed La Porte in a grueling DAC matchup, 63-56.
“They've played a tough schedule,” Slicers coach Kyle Benge said. “They've played teams close. They're still one of the most athletic teams in the area.
"We didn't do the little things we needed to to come away with a victory.”
After clawing back from a 44-30 hole with just under three minutes left in the third, La Porte (9-10, 1-5) went ahead by one a few times midway through the fourth. But it couldn't quite sustain the momentum.
Leading 53-52 with 2:57 remaining, which capped a 23-8 spurt, the Slicers seemed to be in a good spot.
In the end, the athleticism of the Pirates (8-10, 3-3) was too much. They especially used their outstanding athleticism on the boards and defensively.
“Our poise was instrumental to the win,” first-year Merrillville coach Bo Patton said. “Like I was telling the guys, 'We've lost our three conference games by three points apiece, so when La Porte made that run and went up one, we just stuck with it.' Usually we get out of shape and take bad shots. But our poise took a step in the right direction.”
The visitors pounced in the final few minutes, converting three contested layups to erase La Porte's slim lead to take a 58-53 advantage with just over a minute left. Their cushion never dropped below three again.
“We didn't get enough rebounds at key times,” Benge said. “And we forced a couple shots there at the end, instead of just slowing down and kind of getting into our offense. We kind of got sped up and went for the home-run play, instead of just grinding.”
The Slicers' Carson Crass missed a driving basket with 40 seconds to go, which would have cut it to two. The Pirates' Keon Thompson, Jr., followed by making a driving basket, making it 61-55 with 33 seconds left.
Merrillville held the home team to just three points in the final three minutes.
“In the last three minutes, we did the thing that's going to get us to win games, which is defense and rebounding,” Patton said. “We're not a high-powered offensive team, so we pride ourselves on getting stops. And then, rebounding as a group. We preach all five guys got to box out and rebound.”
Grant Ott-Large and Garrott Ott-Large guided La Porte with 16 points apiece, while Crass followed with 11. Ethan Osowski added nine, all on second-half 3-pointers.
The Slicers shot only 35 percent and missed nine free throws.
Senior defensive specialist Micah Spatt drew four charges.
“Micah was awesome defensively,” Benge said. “He brought a lot of intensity offensively and defensively. He's just a tough basketball player. We're definitely going to miss his intensity on both ends. Offensively, we didn't shoot the ball particularly well. Ethan (Osowski) hit some big 3s there to get us back into the game.”
Osowski drained a pair of treys in roughly a minute span from late in the third into the fourth. That helped La Porte pull within six early in the last period, 48-42. The team then eventually went ahead again with 3:50 left, 51-50.
“I'm proud of the effort, proud of the fight,” Benge said. “We came back. But we've had three conference games we've been up in the last three minutes of the game and haven't won the last three. So we've just got to keep grinding and get stops.”
Thompson, Jr., paced the Pirates with a game-high 23 points, and Juwan Bandy scored 17.
The opening half was see-saw as the Slicers led 19-14 after the first. Merrillville limited La Porte to eight points and two field goals in the next quarter to build a 30-27 half cushion.
La Porte again played without 6-foot-6 senior forward Grant Gresham, who injured his ankle three weeks ago against Michigan City and will likely miss the rest of the year. In Gresham's stead, Kyle Kirkham was called up from the junior varsity and saw some action in the second quarter.
In Gresham's absence, the Slicers really struggled with rebounding, giving Merrillville several second-chance opportunities.
Prior to the game, Garrott Ott-Large was recognized for surpassing 1,000 career points last Thursday at Valparaiso.
La Porte’s JV lost 42-36. The Slicers’ Drew Noveroske notched 10 points, and Alvin Rallings and Kyle Kirkham both had eight.