BLUFFTON – They wore their hearts on their backs Friday night, gray Slam Dunk Cancer T-shirts that sprouted in the bleachers and on the sideline and even, as warm-ups, on the players from both Bluffton and Adams Central high schools.
At halftime, there was a standing ovation. In the third quarter, buckets went around, everyone digging deep for former Bluffton basketball coach Wayne Barker and his family.
It was a time for remembrance and surely some tears, as Bluffton honored Barkers wife, Ingrid, who died of cancer Tuesday. And then it was time for something else.
Wandering shooting eyes, at times.
And, eventually, a taut 50-45 Bluffton victory in a battle between two teams that both came in unbeaten in the ACAC.
Eventually, it was Chandler Prible turning a steal into a three-point play and Bluffton going 9 of 10 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter that got the Tigers (10-4, 4-0) home against the Flying Jets (6-5, 3-1) on an emotional night.
We have dealt with a lot of hardship around here lately, Bluffton coach Kevin Leising said. I think right now its been a lot of adversity around here.
I think the fact the community has risen up like that; its not about the W. Its about the heart and the commitment and just the opportunity to live life. And thats what Im so proud of tonight, the way the kids just went out and played hard under adverse circumstances.
Adams Central stared its share of adversity in the face, too, on a night when neither team seemed inclined to uncork a knockout punch.
The Flying Jets overcame an eight-point deficit two minutes into the second half, closing to within 35-32 after three with a 10-5 finish to the third quarter. Then they went down by eight again, 40-32, on a steal, layup and free throw by Blufftons Jackson Lambert with 6:50 to play in the game.
But a three by Dalton Combs, who led all scorers with 20 points, got the Jets going again, and when Nick Baumer put back a Combs miss with 1:52 to play, Adams Central had peeled off a 10-0 run and led 42-40.
We needed to keep composed, said Prible, who led Bluffton with 14 points. We needed to focus on getting rebounds and making free throws.
And, once Prible gave Bluffton the lead again on a pair of free throws and then the steal, layup and free throw with 1:02 to play, thats what the Tigers did.
I want to give AC a lot of credit, Leising said. They could have folded when they were down eight, and they didnt. Came back and really had a great chance to win the game.
Again, I felt like it was a very intense rivalry against a quality opponent. I was really proud of the way we carried ourselves as Im sure coach (Aaron) McClure was with Adams Central.