SOUTH BEND — In the midst of South Bend Washington's best stretch of basketball this season, coach Ryan Varga believes his team learned most about themselves in the Panthers' most recent loss.
There was a moment late in the second half of Washington's 64-47 defeat at Valparaiso on Jan. 15, where it trailed by just one possession. Coming off of an overtime league win against South Bend Adams the night before, the Panthers ran out of gas against the No. 10 team in the state. Despite the final score, Washington showed it has the talent to push some of the top teams on its schedule.
"I think we learned that we can compete with some of the best teams in the state and we are not that far away," Varga said. "We still have a ways to go, but we are not that far away."
That last loss to the Vikings was sandwiched in between a stretch where the Panthers had won five of their past six games, including Jan. 20th's 60-33 win over Jimtown.
Offensively, Washington has shown it has as much firepower as any team in the Northern Indiana Conference, with four players scoring in double figures. Marcus Northern leads the team at 14.9 points. Tyler Davis adds 11.3 points per game, while Terrence Reid and Jawan Agnew score 10.5 and 10.3 points per game respectively.
Defense has also been one of Washington's strongpoints, holding eight opponents to under 50 points this season.
"We are a lot more mature than we were last year," Varga said. "Some of those games, we probably don't win last year, especially some of those that came down to the wire. I really found out about our maturity and our perseverance from those games, and our willingness to do what it takes to get the win.
...We were taking teams that were going on a run and we were able to stop it and respond. I am much pleased about our response of how we deal with adversity rather than last year."
At 4-2 in league play, Washington isn't out of the NIC race just yet, but there is some work to do. Luckily, some of its biggest league challenges are still on the horizon, with this week's challenge vs. Mishawaka Marian on Jan. 28 and another home game against Penn on Feb. 11.
And unlike year's past, whether it happens or not, the Panthers are going into those matchups with more belief that they can pull off an upset.
"I think we need to continue to get better at defending," Varga said. "Defense has been one of our staples over the course of the season, so we have to make sure we are staying true to ourselves first. I think our shot selection and execution down the stretch has to continue to get better, and it has gotten better, but we need to tighten it up more playing teams like Marian that are highly skilled."
Youth movement at South Bend Riley
South Bend Riley (9-6, 3-3 NIC) haven't been challenging the top teams for the NIC title so far this season, but the Wildcats still have four league games remaining to make some noise.
Knowing this, head coach Alex Daniel hasn't been letting his team go down without a fight.
“Defensively we have taken a step back," Daniel said. "We are a little smaller, less physical now, so defensively we have to do some things that are different than what we were doing at the beginning of the year. Our offense has been better. We have been able to score the basketball at a little higher rate as long as we take care of it."
One major change Daniel made geared towards this was inserting younger, inexperienced players into Riley's rotation. Three freshman: Marvin Schindler, Jaylen Barbara and Brandon Williams have all seen an uptick in minutes in recent games, as the Wildcats have won two in a row dating back to Jan. 14.
Schindler, who has moved into a starting role for Riley, has averaged 9.9 points per game this year, good for second on the team. Barbara, who has scored 5.5 points per game, has turned into the first player coming off of the bench in Daniel's rotation, while Williams has moved up from the junior varsity team and is seeing some minutes as well.
In Riley's most recent outing, a 66-63 win against Clay, Barbara scored 10 points for the Wildcats, while Schindler added 5.
"They have done a good job developing throughout the year and are ready to take on that next step," Daniel said.
As much as Daniel wants to compete for a league title, he knows that is not Riley's ultimate goal. His lineup changes may, or may not, have an immediate impact on the NIC standings. Rather, they are more geared towards the Wildcats playing their best basketball in March.
"We obviously want to win as many games as we can," Daniel said. "For us, we didn't win conference last year but we won a sectional. Yes we want to win as many games as we can. We want local bragging rights and stuff, but the objective is to be playing your best basketball come sectional time. That is really what we are gearing up towards."
Games of the week
This week features two games across the Northern Indiana Conference and the Northern Lakes Conference that could go a long way in deciding league titles.
NIC: Marian at Glenn
Marian (12-2 , 5-0 NIC) got by its first big league test last week, defeating Penn at home to remain unbeaten in NIC play. But the Knights' toughest test will be this week when they play at Glenn (15-0, 6-0 NIC) in what is arguably the biggest game in Walkerton history.
The game features four players, two on each team, averaging double figures in scoring this season, in Glenn's Brycen Hannah (17.1) and Silas Kaser (12.7), as well as Marian's Deaglan Sullivan (17.2) and Richard Brooks (15.1).
If Glenn were to win, its presumed last major test this season would be a home game against Penn on Feb. 3. The Falcons also have league games against South Bend Adams, Jimtown and Bremen remaining. A Marian win would catapult the Knights into the NIC driver's seat, with head-to-head tiebreakers over the Falcons and Kingsmen and games against South Bend Washington, Bremen, New Prairie, South Bend Saint Joseph and Jimtown remaining.
NLC: Warsaw at NorthWood
NorthWood (15-1, 4-0 NLC) is the last remaining undefeated team left in league play with only three league games remaining. Friday's home game against Warsaw (10-5, 3-1 NLC) will likely decide the league's champion, with the winner holding a major head-to-head victory.
Don't sleep on Mishawaka (8-3, 2-1 NLC), who still have four games remaining, including ones against both Warsaw, on Feb. 3, and NorthWood on Feb. 11.
Northern Indiana Conference: Glenn 15-0 (6-0), Marian 12-2 (5-0), Penn 11-2 (5-1), Washington 12-4 (5-2), Saint Joseph 7-6 (4-2), Riley 9-6 (3-3), Adams 4-8 (2-3), Jimtown 6-8 (2-4), Elkhart 3-10 (2-4), Bremen 6-5 (1-3), New Prairie 3-11 (0-6), Clay 4-11 (0-7).
Northern Lakes Conference: NorthWood 15-1 (4-0), Warsaw 10-5 (3-1), Mishawaka 8-3 (2-1), Goshen 9-4 (2-2), Concord 7-6 (2-2), Plymouth 5-10 (1-3), Northridge 4-9 (1-3), Wawasee 4-8 (0-3).
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Indiana high school basketball news and notes in South Bend area