Big first half sets up Norwalk for stretch run

Mark Hazelwood • Updated Feb 2, 2018 at 11:09 PM

NORWALK — Now comes the hard part.

The Norwalk girls basketball team shook off previous slow starts, pouncing on visiting Shelby for a 13-minute stretch of the first half in a 51-38 win over the Whippets Friday night at Norwalk High School.

The win improved the Truckers to 14-3 overall and 7-1 in the Sandusky Bay Conference Lake division. They still remain one game behind state-ranked Bellevue (18-1, 10-0). Norwalk will need to win three road league games in a five-day span — potentially without a key starter — with hopes of heading to Bellevue on Feb. 15 with a chance to play for the title in the regular season finale.

In Friday’s win, it took Norwalk nearly three minutes to score. But once the Truckers got going, they dominated the rest of the first half.

Kaelyn Harkness scored the first six points for Norwalk in a 3:03 stretch to erase an early 4-0 deficit. Elena Barber and Jasmine Thomas added baskets to give the Truckers a 10-4 lead after one quarter.

It was a 13-8 lead for Norwalk when the hosts rattled off a 15-2 scoring run to essentially put the game away by halftime.

Harkness again scored two straight times, including a 3-pointer, for a 19-8 lead. After Shelby’s Bailey Walter scored at the 2:31 mark, the Truckers closed the half with a 9-0 run.

Jada Thomas split a pair of free throws, and Joci Leto came off the bench to score two straight baskets off Shelby (6-10, 3-6) turnovers. The Thomas twins then closed out the half, as Jasmine scored with 51.2 seconds left in the second quarter, and Jada put in a basket with 20.9 seconds to go to extend the lead to 28-10.

“The first portion of it was a little slow, but we really ratcheted up our defense,” Norwalk coach Brock Manlet said. “We got our hands on a lot of passes, a lot of tips. And the more we started doing that, the more confidence we played with. And that’s the team I’m used to seeing. I’m just happy that it finally came out.”

Manlet had openly been concerned about his team’s defense over the past five or six games. He said Friday was a big step back in the right direction.

“I think we got back to basics,” he said. “We haven’t been ourselves defensively for five or six games, and tonight I thought we got back to doing what we do best. We were moving our feet, contesting shots.

“The second half was a little different because we changed our defense,” he added. “We just didn’t want the clock to stop. We weren’t as aggressive in the second half, but in the first half I was very pleased with just how we rotated and how aggressive we were.”

Jada Thomas finished with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds to lead Norwalk. Harkness had 13 points, six steals and four assists — and Jasmine Thomas finished with 11 points. Olivia Ward added six points and 10 rebounds.

The Truckers played without senior guard Bethany Cring, who averages 9.4 points per game.

“Joci Leto off the bench was huge for us,” Manlet said. “She just gave us a spark, and really the whole bench was very good. I can’t say enough about our kids, who all played extremely hard.

“We don’t know how long Bethany is going to be out, but hopefully we have her back by the tournament,” he added. “We just have to have some other kids step up.”

Norwalk is scheduled to host Western Reserve (13-2) on Tuesday. It visits Perkins (12-7, 5-4) on Thursday, Sandusky (4-15, 1-7) on Saturday and Columbian (8-9, 3-6) on Feb. 12 — then the finale at Bellevue on Feb. 15.

“I know it’s going to be tough, those are all tough places to play, but the lack of practice time might be good for us right now,” Manlet said. “I think part of the reason for our slow starts is we hit that midseason grind, and with playing so much it might be more beneficial for us to go out and play.”

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