GARRETT – At halftime of Saturday's Northeast Corner Conference boys tournament championship game, Central Noble trailed Prairie Heights by two. Then, the 3-pointers started falling.
The Cougars drilled nine shots from beyond the arc in the second half – five from Connor Essigian and four from Sawyer Yoder – to charge past the Panthers and win 76-70 at Garrett, capturing their first NECC Tournament title since 1977.
In the NECC girls final, Hanna Knoll and Ally Lorntz had 20 points apiece to pace the Angola Hornets (17-2) to their 16th straight win, a 61-52 triumph over Fairfield, and a second tournament championship in three seasons.
Essigian, just a sophomore, finished with 34 points, including 26 in the second half, and Yoder added 29 to lead Central Noble (12-2) to its eighth consecutive win.
"I think Connor had a slow start, but he's a competitor and he wasn't going to quit," Central Noble coach John Bodey said of Essigian. "He found ways to get going and once he made a couple of easy ones, then the 3s started falling. That's the type of player he is.
"And Sawyer's just explosive like that. Once he gets going, it's hard to stop him."
Despite 13 first-half points from Yoder, the Cougars trailed 29-27 at halftime. Early in the third, Yoder hit back-to-back 3s to put his team up 40-33 and Essigian closed the quarter with a string of 11 straight Central Noble points, including three 3-pointers, to make it a 51-43 advantage. After the third 3-pointer in quick succession, Essigian ran back down court pumping his fist at his team's bench.
"It felt great," Essigian said of combining with Yoder for 13 3-pointers. "We needed one of those games where we both had each others' backs. But it was a team effort. (The rest of the team) got us the ball where we needed the ball, they distributed it, they helped on defense, it was really just a great team effort."
The Panthers (12-2) never got closer than six points in the fourth quarter. Mike Perkins led Prairie Heights with 20 points, including four 3-pointers.
The girls' matchup was close throughout, with neither team holding a lead larger than four points until midway through the fourth quarter. Angola had beaten Fairfield (11-8) 54-38 in early December, but the Falcons' 2-3 zone defense bothered the Hornets much of the night, making it difficult to get the ball inside.
So, the Hornets won the game from the outside. Knoll scored her team's final 10 points in the third quarter, finishing with a trio of 3-pointers in a row to knot the score at 38. After the third 3-pointer, that came with just seconds left in the quarter, Fairfield coach Troy Beachy shouted at his team, regarding Knoll, "We can't leave her!"
Early in the fourth quarter, with Fairfield up 41-38, the Hornets nailed 3s on back-to-back possessions to go in front for good. The first came from sophomore Danielle Dunham to tie the score. The second saw Knoll drive hard to the rim, draw a crowd of defenders and kick to Lorntz on the left wing for a go-ahead 3.
Lorntz added another 3 less than a minute later and ended the game with a parade of free throws to keep her team in front. She had 14 points in the fourth quarter.
"Our group has played together so long and then working as a team together, this is what we've worked for our whole season," Lorntz said of the tournament championship. "Now, since we've accomplished this goal, we move on to sectionals."