PORTER TOWNSHIP | When a personal foul and technical foul chased Sean Kelly from the Porter County Conference tournament championship at 5:53 of the third quarter Saturday, it figured to spell big trouble for Hanover Central.
After the 6-foot-7 center's departure, Max Johnson put the Wildcats (9-6) on his back, dropping 12 of his 26 points on Times No. 9 Kouts in the quarter to fuel the swing that carried Hanover Central to a 64-60 victory in its final PCC tourney appearance.
"It was a rough time losing (Kelly). I had to step up and be a leader," Johnson said. "Everybody else had to pick it up, especially our big men. When I stepped up, they guarded me harder. That opened up Jeremy (Pedersoli) and he took over. This means everything. This team's my family. We had to do it for (Kelly). I had to do it for my mom. It's her birthday."
Kouts (13-2) staged a frenzied rally from a double-digit deficit to draw within three in the final seconds, but Pedersoli's free throw with 8.2 ticks left secured the outcome.
"We're just coming together," Hanover coach Bryon Clouse said. "They're finally starting to realize that if we slow it down and run our stuff, we can be pretty tough to beat. We spread it out, and we've got guards who can penetrate and get to the basket."
Pedersoli finished with 13 points to complement Johnson, who made seven of nine shots in the middle quarters on a mix of jump shots and drives to the rim.
"We would've played him a little differently if we were ahead more often," Kouts coach Marty Gaff said. "Being behind, we felt more of a sense of urgency to get out on them, which made it easier for them going to the basket. (Johnson)'s awfully quick. We had a hard time containing him."
Hanover raced to an 11-2 lead off the tip, but Kelly and Johnson both drew a pair of early fouls, and their exit opened the door for Kouts. The Mustangs countered with a 16-1 run to go up 18-12, closing out the quarter with Cody Nelson's transition layup at the buzzer.
Kouts drilled four 3-pointers in the opening eight minutes before cooling off in the second. Hanover converted back-to-back steals into baskets to pull even at 18 and Johnson scored the Wildcats' next seven points to put them back in front.
"Hanover came out very aggressive and physical, and kept it up all night," Gaff said. "They got after it. They came out in a zone and we were doing a little more standing than we wanted to, then they went back to man, and we never got much flow going on offense. It's hard to put my finger on what caused it."
Johnson bottomed a pair of 3s to start his third-quarter roll as Hanover pushed its lead to as many as 11.
"We had a reason to break, but we fought through it," Clouse said. "Max is the reason. He took the ball and that was the end of it. They went box-and-one on him and Jeremy took over. He can play, too."
Everaert led Kouts with 22 points, but clanked nine of his 15 free throws, including five in a row in the fourth quarter, hampering the Mustangs' comeback bid. Andrew Birky, who was named the mental attitude award winner, added 15 points and Cody Nelson notched 12.
"I'll take my chances with Max again any time," Gaff said. "Free throws are a funny thing. You have those nights. Sometimes, you get on a roll and are confident they're all going to go in. Sometimes, you get on a roll the other way."
The win particularly sweet for Hanover, which will join the Greater South Shore Conference next season. It was scheduled to go in 2014, but the moved was bumped up a year after the PCC voted to add Westville next season. Some negative sentiment still lingers.
"It's an awesome feeling, words can't describe," Clouse said. "I told people about our strength of schedule. It got us ready. We've got bitterness on us and we just took it out. I'll leave it that way."