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WASHINGTON — There goes the football excuse.

Unofficially, Normal Community High School's basketball season began Tuesday night. The Ironmen, who were handcuffed at the start of the season because of an extended football playoff run, rallied in the fourth quarter to beat Class AA No. 11-ranked Washington 49-45 in a nonconference game.

"We learned a lot about our basketball team tonight. We haven't had many games with this group of guys," said NCHS coach Dave Witzig. "When we tied it up I thought to myself, ?~We're going to have a fun year.' It's going to be a group of guys that are going to battle and fight, scratch and claw."

The Ironmen overcame a 40-32 deficit with six minutes left. Sophomore guard Aaron Garriott gave NCHS its first lead at 43-42 when he drove inside and made a short jumper over Washington's 6-foot-7 Tyler Wallenfang with 1:13 left.

Craig Lutes sank four free throws and Garriott added a pair down the stretch as NCHS, playing only its second game in 21 days, improved to 2-4.

Garriott scored eight of his team-high 10 points in the fourth quarter when NCHS outscored the Panthers 22-14.

"We were playing a great team. We had to have someone step up," said Garriott. "Our seniors were out there. I knew they were going to step up. I decided to take the ball to the basket and see what I could do."

NCHS appeared in for a long night at the start.

Washington (6-2) used its superior size and pounded the ball inside for two baskets before sophomore star Matt Roth sank a 3-pointer for a 7-0 lead with only two minutes elapsed.

The Panthers might have thought it was going to be easy. Their coach, Kevin Brown, knew better.

"They (the Ironmen) were going to play defense and get after it and play hard," said Brown, the former Central Catholic coach. "We had chances all through the game to blow it open. We didn't cherish the ball and we didn't cherish the defensive end. We had no passion whatsoever on the defensive end."

The Ironmen trailed 24-15 at halftime before their sticky man-to-man defense began to clamp down Washington. Roth's 3-pointer with 46 seconds left was the Panthers' only basket in the third quarter as NCHS cut the gap to 31-27.

Washington still seemed in control when Roth made two free throws for a 40-32 advantage with 6:09 left. Sheldon Harper followed with a three-point play, steal and layup to pull NCHS within 40-37. Lutes and Garriott took over the rest of the way, combining to score NCHS' final 12 points. Lutes finished with nine points, while Harper and Dan Frantz added eight points each.

The Ironmen held Washington to 27.8 percent shooting from the field (5 of 18) in the second half. NCHS played a nearly flawless second half — 55 percent field goal shooting (11 of 20), 83.3 percent at the free throw line (10 of 12) and three turnovers.

"We take great pride in our defense. We thought they had too many easy looks in the first half," said Witzig. "Our offense got going in the second half, which helped our defense get a little more bounce in their steps."

Roth, who helped Washington reach the super-sectional last season as a freshman, paced the Panthers with a game-high 23 points. He sank five 3-pointers. Wallenfang finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

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