WARREN - When Maplewood coach Nathan Kish was at Roberts Wesleyan, his basketball coach impressed upon him the importance of speed in basketball, and his team epitomized those words on Friday night.
In a Division IV sectional final contest at Warren G. Harding High School, his Rockets used their speed to outlast a much taller Mineral Ridge team, 52-48.
"When I played in college, my coach always told me, 'Speed kills,'" Kish said. "It is hard to guard speed. The thing we didn't do in the first half is use our speed to our advantage. We would have 3-on-2 situation or 2-on-1, and we would pull the ball back out and slow it down.
"I think we did a much better job of pushing the ball, pushing the tempo in the second half."
In the matchup of size vs. speed, size won in the first round, as the Rams took a 25-20 lead into halftime.
Maplewood (17-6) seemed timid when inside the paint and for good reason. The Rams' Ryan Nutter towered over the Rockets, who start four guards, and the junior center took advantage, swatting away Maplewood shot attempts near the basket.
Nutter also created mismatches on the offensive end, creating a lot of second-chance opportunities.
"One of our ideas was to get the ball inside and get Ryan Nutter isolated on their big guy," Mineral Ridge coach Chris Kohl said. "We had scouted them, and we thought that we could do that. Unfortunately, it didn't work out the way we thought it would."
The balance tipped in the favor speed at the start of the second half.
The Rockets went on an 11-0 run over the first 3 minutes of the third quarter to take their first lead since the 5:21 mark in the first quarter. Maplewood created points on the fast break and also attacked Nutter, forcing him to leave or take fouls. Nutter fouled out with 57 seconds remaining.
"The one thing that we've lacked this year is the ability for our guys to go in the paint," Kish said. "When we do it, good things happen. Nutter does a great job of blocking shots, and he intimidates people down there. For us to go at him like that, I was happy with that in the second half."
The rest of the half went back and forth, leading to an exciting finish.
The Rockets held a a 50-48 lead with 12.2 seconds remaining in the fourth, and the Rams had the ball. Following a timeout, Mineral Ridge (15-9) looked for shooter Zac Hagy, but Maplewood's Kevin Jones read the play. He jumped a pass off a screen at the top of the key and forced the Rams to foul him.
With little time remaining, Jones clinched the game from the charity stripe.
"I was confident," Jones said. "It's 3 or so seconds left, I got to ice them. If not, they could go on a breakaway and end the game on a 3 or hit a two to tie it. I knew I had to make both to end it."
Maplewood will face the No. 2-seed Windham at Harding High School in the district semifinals on Tuesday at 6 p.m.