COAL CITY — It didn't take long for Gardner-South Wilmington's Nathan Wozniak to make his presence felt Monday night in the Panthers' season-opening 55-35 win over Morris in the Coal City Thanksgiving Tip-Off.
After Morris' Jacob Overbeck opened the scoring with a three-pointer, Wozniak answered with a three-pointer of his own. It was the beginning of a 12-0 run by the Panthers, and Wozniak, a 5-foot-9 senior, had the final two baskets of the spurt as well. He finished the game with 17 points and eight rebounds, both game highs.
"Nathan has been a special player for us the last few years," first-year GSW coach Allan Wills said. "He's not the tallest guy on the court, but he has a lot of grit.
"He can take the ball to the hole or he can hit an outside shot. And, he is a big key for us on defense the way he disrupts things."
The defense was what carried the Panthers to a 12-6 lead at the end of the first quarter and a 27-12 halftime advantage. GSW hounded Morris into five first-quarter turnovers and 11 in the game. GSW also dominated on the boards in the first half to help limit Morris to one shot on many possessions.
"We came out and played well, especially on defense," Wills said. "We got after it on the boards and we were able to get some steals that led to easy baskets. We only let them have a couple of offensive rebounds and that was good to see. Rebounding is going to be a key for this team. Not only our post players, but our guards did a good job of getting in there and getting boards."
The Panthers scored the first nine points of the second quarter, including two more baskets by Wozniak, before Jack Walker scored for Morris. That was followed by a bucket by Logan Edwards to pull the Redskins to within 21-10. Walker and Edwards led Morris with nine points each, while Chatten Dryfhout had six to go with a team-high six rebounds.
GSW then got buckets by Dylan Hill and Michael Ashley before Gabe Huffman scored off an assist by Walker to make it 25-12. Wozniak scored the final basket of the first half on a drive to the hoop.
The Panthers spread out the scoring in the third quarter, as Ashley and Jaylon Sims each scored four points and Wozniak, Connor Steichen, Chris Bexson, and Joey Morales each scored two. Morris got five points from Walker, four from Dryfhout, two from Edwards and one from Sam Williams as GSW led 45-24 entering the fourth.
"We did not shoot well tonight," Morris coach Joe Blumberg said. "We didn't have very many shots in rhythm. A lot of that is because Gardner-South Wilmington had their hands in the passing lanes and throwing off our timing. But, we were stangant on offense, too.
"We also didn't rebound very well, which is tough to take. That's an effort thing and definitely something we need to work on."
Morris got a free throw from Edwards and putback basket by Dryfhout, a pair of free throws from Edwards, and a steal and layup by Walker to open the fourth quarter and trim the lead to 45-31. GSW got a free throw each by Steichen (10 points) and Bexson (11 points) before Edwards scored again for Morris. GSW then went on a 7-0 spurt, with Bexson making three free throws and assisting on a basket by Wozniak before Steichen scored off a lob on an inbounds pass. Williams made a putback for Morris to cap the scoring.
"This as a nice team win for us," Wills said. "Michael Ashley played well off the bench and Chris Bexson did a nice job and knocked down some free throws at the end."
"We have 30 games on our schedule," Blumberg said. "We can't get too down after one loss. But, we have a lot of improvements to make and we have to get back to work."