HIGHLAND | DJ Wilkins has been there -- close game, Big Ten coach in the stands, teammates depending on experience and instinct to deliver a victory.
He’s done it with a football in his hands but more often with a basketball, and the Merrillville sophomore showed that he can take his extensive AAU experience to the varsity level on Friday night as he asserted himself as the leader of a team that lost nearly 99 percent of its points and minutes from last March’s semistate team.
Wilkins led the way early in what looked like a surefire rout of host Highland, then came up with several clutch defensive plays and free throws as Times No. 4 Merrillville survived a nonconference affair between 0-1 teams to beat Highland 46-43 Friday night.
“It’s all about knowing how to be in the right place at the right time and knowing how to make plays when the team really needs it,” Wilkins said after rebounding Highland’s potential game-winning shot with 2.7 seconds left and then intercepting an inbounds pass to seal the game.
Wilkins, whose skills lured Purdue coach Matt Painter to the gym, led the Pirates with 16 points, including eight with three steals in the first quarter, when Merrillville went up 19-4 with a bevy of fastbreak points and nine total steals. Merrillville (1-1) extended that lead to 21-4 in the first minute of the second period.
The Trojans won each of the final three quarters, forcing Merrillville into 21 turnovers for the game and sending the Pirates to the foul line where they were just 8-for-17 in the second half.
Matt Benninghoff, who missed an open look at a turnabout dance proposal on the video message board to start the game, tied Ben Wood with 11 points to lead the Trojans (0-2).
Wood had three blocks and three assists in the game and was 5-for-6 on free throws in the fourth quarter. He attempted a 3-pointer from the left elbow with about five seconds to go in the game and the Trojans down 45-43. Wood had hit a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 44-43 with 20.5 seconds remaining.
“Our effort for the last three quarters, with nine seniors, that’s what we expect,” Highland coach Jordan Heckard said. “Now they see this is how we can play all the time. We’re not ones for moral victories, but this shows the level at which we can play. We feel good about how we played, we just wish the outcome were better.”
Highland outscored Merrillville 39-25 after falling behind 21-4.
“We’re finding our way and learning,” Merrillville coach T.J. Lux said. “We have to understand that in varsity basketball it takes intensity for 32 minutes and you’ve got to stay with it every possession.”