ANNA — Marion Local 6-foot-6 forward Nathan Bruns is one of the top basketball players in Ohio, as he showed throughout the team’s Division IV state title run last year.
Bruns, who is verbally committed to the University of Findlay, has the ball-handling and long-range shooting skills many post players lack — not to mention strong skills in the paint, either on offense or defense.
He can be a load for opponents to handle, and was a load for Anna guard Bart Bixler in a nonconference game on Saturday. And though Bruns hit many shots early, Bixler led a defensive movement that contained him and the Flyers’ other players in the final quarter.
That defensive effort and the ability to create turnovers helped Anna rally from a seven-point deficit and keep its undefeated season intact with a 68-67 victory.
The Rockets improve to 9-0 with the victory.
“Ultimately we wanted to keep our perfect season,” Bixler said. “We’ve always wanted to keep that rolling.”
Bixler, a 5-11 junior, is part of a roster that was undersized against the Flyers. Aside from Bruns, 6-4 post Nick Tangeman and 6-3 Sam Huelsman also started. Three of Anna’s starters are shorter than 6-0.
“They’re bigger and they’re taller, and we’ve always have a big rivalry with them in football, and this just makes it even bigger,” Bixler said. “With the (near-sellout) crowd and everything, it was one of the best wins we’ve ever had.”
Marion Local (4-2) led by as many as seven points in the first part of the fourth quarter and had a 64-58 lead after Bruns hit 1-of-2 free throws with 1:18 left.
But the Flyers had three costly turnovers down the stretch, each of which resulted in possessions that Anna scored on. Marion Local also continually fouled in the final minute to send the Rockets to the free-throw line.
Bixler hit four late foul shots and junior guard Riley Huelskamp hit a 3-pointer from the left corner with about 30 seconds left to put Anna ahead 66-64. Huelskamp later made a pair of free throws to increase Anna’s lead to four points.
“There was a point where we were struggling on free throws and they were (hitting theirs), and it made it difficult to catch them,” Anna coach Nate Barhorst said. “All of sudden we got (Bixler) to the free-throw line and we make them.
“We were trying to get the ball to him at the end and it didn’t work out, but Riley’s a great shooter and he stepped up and knocked them down to ice the game.”
Bixler led Anna with 20 points while Griffiin Doseck scored 19. Huelskamp finished with 11.
“We had a ton of guys step up for us,” Barhorst said. “Griff, Riley, Isaac Lininger did a great job of ball handling and giving pressure. I’m proud of my kids.
“Relentless effort — that’s what it is. Relentless effort all the way through.”
Bruns — who surpassed 1,000 career points in a win over St. Henry on Friday — finished with 28. He scored 19 of those in the first three quarters, though, and didn’t make a field goal in the fourth quarter until he hit a 3 at the buzzer that narrowed the final margin to one point.
“When we switched Bart Bixler to Nate Bruns, he did a heck of a job on him,” Barhorst said. “In the fullcourt, halfcourt, it didn’t matter — he rattled him the whole time. Bruns is going to get his points because he’s a great player, but for (Bixler) to step up offensively and defensively, he was definitely the catalyst for us tonight.”
Bruns scored nine points in the first quarter. From there, it was a battle between Bixler and Bruns — who both were starting quarterbacks for their schools’ football squads’ last fall.
“I saw that he was going off on us in the first quarter and I know he has a foot on me, but I figured if I picked him up in the fullcourt, I might force a few turnovers and maybe contain him if I could,” Bixler said. “He’s a great player.”
Marion Local made 10 three-pointers in the game while Anna made three. But the Rockets made up for that disparity with turnovers and by getting 14 more shots at the free-throw line than the Flyers.
Barhorst said the turnovers Anna created to help fuel its transition offense were crucial.
“We’ve got one guy on our team (Huelskamp) that has 24 deflections on the season and 16 or 17 steals, and we challenged our other guards,” Barhorst said. “Bart answered the call. Giving up a good 10 inches to (Bruns), and he just battled.”
Anna’s comeback came in the final 68 seconds.
Doseck made a free throw with 1:08 left to cut Marion Local’s lead to 64-59, then Bixler made a pair of foul shots six seconds later.
After a timeout, Marion Local threw an inbounds pass in front of its own bench to Doseck, who worked the ball to Bixler. Bixler was fouled with 49 seconds left and made another pair of free throws to cut the lead to 64-63.
Marion Local’s next possession ended when Bruns was called for a travel, and Anna worked the ball to Huelskamp in the left corner, who drained a 3 to give the Rockets their first lead since early in the first quarter.
A Marion Local player stepped out-of-bounds on the next possession. The Flyers then fouled Huelskamp, who made two free throws with 11.7 seconds left to boost the lead to 68-64.
“I’m very proud of the boys — all of them,” Barhorst said. “This was a very big test — a huge test. We haven’t been tested like that. So to be behind and come back from behind in the final minutes to win it, that’s a testament to our boys and how strong-minded they are.
“I’m just very, very proud of them. And they know we still have areas we’ve got to get better at.”
The teams traded points early but Bruns hit a 3 with one second left in the first quarter to give the Flyers a 19-15 lead. Anna tied it 24-24 midway through the second but Marion Local score the next seven points.
After a basket by Carter Elliott brought Anna within 34-33, Bruns banked a shot from just inside the arc at the buzzer to push the halftime lead to three points.
Matt Rethman hit a pair of 3-pointers in the third quarter for Marion Local — the second of which gave the team a 50-42 lead with three minutes left.
“They were making shots that they weren’t making when we scouted them,” Barhorst said. “They’re hitting them left and right, and it’s like ‘Man, maybe it’s just there night.’ But our kids never gave up, and that’s what I love about them.”
Bixler scored after a steal to open the fourth quarter, which capped off a 10-2 run by Anna and narrowed the gap to 53-52. But Marion Local went on a 7-2 run to take a six-point lead, then Bruns hit a free throw with 5:14 left to boost the advantage to 61-54.
“When they came out shooting really well in the second half, we just battled and battled and didn’t give up,” Bixler said. “Teams know that we’re not going to get down if they have a lead on us. If we come out ready to play every night and not take any team for granted, we’re going to be a pretty tough team down the stretch.”
Anna finished the last four minutes of the game with a 14-6 scoring edge.
“We’re uptempo all the time, and we’re just trying to get as many buckets as we can in fullcourt,” Bixler said. “That was really nice for us, at the end especially.”
Anna will play next on Friday at Shelby County Athletic League rival Botkins (5-6), which is coming off a last-second win over Fort Loramie.
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.