Mark Detweiler called it “typical Union County.”
It certainly wasn’t boring. It never is, when it comes to this tournament.
Braden Norris made 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch, lifting his Patriots into the sectional semifinals — and confirming his coach’s prediction that Tuesday’s tussle with Knightstown would come down to just a few possessions.
Norris finished with 21 points, and the junior helped his squad finish off a 49-45 victory over the pesky Panthers in the opening game of Class 2A Sectional 41 at Hagerstown.
The Patriots (16-6) advance to face Northeastern (11-9) at 6 p.m. Friday.
“Coach’s motto the whole week has been survive and move on,” Norris said. “It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you get there.”
The defending champions did it by turning back the determined challenge of a young Knightstown squad.
Freshman Jackson Edwards led the Panthers — and all scorers — with 22 points, while teammate Dakota Smucker snagged a game-high 17 rebounds.
It was nearly enough. Knightstown led by as many as six in the second half, and owned a 43-38 advantage with 3:43 to play.
That’s when Detweiler turned to Norris and Trey Hannebaum, instructing the pair to take over the game.
They got the message.
Hannebaum scored seven of his 15 points in the final frame, and his turn-around jumper with 1:30 left gave the Patriots a 44-43 lead.
The senior was whistled for his fifth foul soon after, though he remained confident that UC would advance, even when the Patriots trailed 45-44 with 51 seconds in the game.
“I was not wanting to go out like that,” Hannebaum said.
“I had complete confidence they could pull it out. I knew the guys we have out there can play basketball. We have a great bench, guys who can play and guys who know how to close out a game.”
Count Norris in that number. He made two free throws with 34.3 seconds left to pull Union County ahead, then swished two more with 18 seconds remaining to make it a three-point game.
Norris made his final free throw with 6.8 seconds to go, making the final score and all but ensuring a Patriot victory.
“It was just another game shooting free throws,” Norris said. “We practice all week. It really makes a difference.”
Brandon Himes scored seven points for the Patriots, with Kory Finch adding six.
Norris had a team-high six rebounds and Hannebaum five.
Union County took care of the ball, too, turning it over eight times to 17 for the Panthers (7-14), who tied the game 23-all at halftime and led 35-34 after three quarters.
“They did some nice things. They found some seams in the zone,” Detweiler said of the Panthers. “You give them credit, because they’re playing some really good basketball right now.”
Edwards, scoreless in the first quarter on 0-for-0 from the field, hit his first six shots for 15 points at halftime.
Union County is no stranger to tight games come tournament time. The Patriots edged Hagerstown by one point in 2011’s opening round, then upended Eastern Hancock in double overtime that same year.
Union County fended off Knightstown 42-39 in the regular season.
“Our whole season has been this way. We’re about as tested in these types of games as anybody can be,” Detweiler said. “We’ve had so many games that have come down to two minutes on the clock and needing a basket or needing a stop. And we’ve got them, most of the year. We’ve had a lot of guys step up and close games out.”
Northeastern was one of those close games for the Pats. They squeezed past the Knights 47-46 on Feb. 7.
Sectional play continues tonight with Centerville vs. Lincoln at 6 p.m., followed by Eastern Hancock vs. Hagerstown.
“Last time, it was really tough beating them. I think they are the most dangerous team in this tournament,” Hannebaum said of the Knights.
Added Deteweiler: “It’ll be a war. Again. What you just saw tonight, it’ll be a replay as far as very few possessions separating a team.”