MUNSTER | On the very first play of the game, Munster, in the flow of its offense, threw the ball high to the back court, only no one was there.
An astute guard hustled and corralled the ball to avoid the turnover, but the play foreshadowed everything.
Munster nearly threw it away. Nearly.
Instead of suffering a monster upset, the unbeaten state and Times No. 1 Mustangs played like themselves for the final 11:38 and dispatched a driven South Bend Riley team 46-36 on Friday night to finish the regular season undefeated for the second time in three seasons.
“The first half, that was a team I haven’t seen all year -- I'm talking about our team,” Munster coach Mike Hackett said. “I don’t know where they came from and hope I never see them again.”
The alien Munster squad made 13 turnovers in the first half -- more than half its possessions. The team’s first four fouls came on the offensive end.
The Wildcats (12-8), meanwhile, used the 3-pointer to negate the Munster zone and led 22-18 at halftime. That lead grew to 30-25 in the first four minutes of the second half.
After a Riley timeout with 3:38 to go, Munster (22-0) woke up. With the Wildcats’ post players in foul trouble, senior Nate Bubash scored 14 of his team-high 15 points, including nine in the third quarter.
His three-point play with 2:39 to play in the third put the Mustangs up for good at 32-30. Bubash finished with eight rebounds as well.
“The first half we were all sluggish,” Bubash said. “The first half I was a lot more hesitant, but in the second half I was more aggressive.”
Riley’s Brock Cosey scored a game-high 18, with four 3-pointers.
However, his jumper with 6:07 to go was the final Wildcats basket of the game. Munster switched to man-to-man for most of the second half, and the foul-plagued Wildcats could not get anything done.
“I told them we’ve got to remember to be who we are and do what we do,” Hackett said.
While the defense was stout for most of the game, especially inside, the offense struggled to five second-quarter points but clicked after Bubash softened the inside, allowing perimeter players such as Craig Dedelow (12 points), Mike Schlotman (six points, eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks) to create. Munster outscored Riley 28-14 in the second half.
“We just picked up the intensity on offense,” Dedelow said.
Munster’s unbeaten regular-season ledger made the Mustangs 59-3 in the past three seasons. The Munster varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams combined for just one loss among them, a JV defeat at the hands of Penn.
Before the game, Dedelow was one of many Mustangs players to hand new reversible jerseys to Munster’s Special Olympics basketball players.
Each Special Olympics player received individual recognition, an escort through a gauntlet of cheerleaders courtesy of the school’s Best Buddies program and a jersey from a varsity player. The Mustangs had already celebrated senior night last week.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Dedelow said. “We see them at school, and the guy I gave a jersey to, I know him by first name. He gave me a big high-five. He’s a really nice kid.”