By Anthony Mitchell
For The Daily Item
Inside or outside, Milton’s Ethan Baker was in the zone.
Left to consider his performance, a visibly ecstatic Baker simply said he had never had a game similar to the one he put together against Mifflinburg Wednesday.
He is likely not alone, considering his final numbers.
Baker scored 39 points to lead Milton to a 68-55 win over Mifflinburg in a late-season Heartland Division I matchup.
“I just shot the ball (and) it went in,” Baker said.
Milton entered the game one game over .500 and Baker made sure to give the Black Panthers a slight cushion in their race to reach the postseason.
“The potential’s been there for (Baker) to (have a big game),” Milton coach Gene Bruno said. “He couldn’t have picked a better night.”
Bruno described the game as close to a must-win for the Black Panthers’ playoff hopes and Baker delivered in the clutch.
“Going in there, we knew we needed more play from our guards and so Baker steps up,” Bruno said.
Creating for himself or working into open space without the ball, Baker put himself in position for open looks consistently, allowing his hot hand to continue throughout the game.
Baker knocked down five 3-pointers, finishing 16-for-23 from the floor.
Riding their junior point guard, Milton (9-7, 3-5 HAC-I) took advantage of the added attention that Mifflinburg (7-9, 3-8) paid to Baker to create shots inside.
“Some point guards look but don’t see, Ethan Baker looks and sees,” Bruno said. “That’s what makes a Baker a good point guard. Ethan Baker finds that open man and gets it to him.”
Working the ball inside allowed Travis Krall to finish in double-figures with 11 points, scoring both off of nifty passes from Baker and crashing the bounds inside.
When Baker, who had played the previous 30:28 of game time, was given some much-deserved rest with 1:32 to play, the crowd immediately cheered his efforts, showing their support for a player who had almost effortlessly taken over the game, outscoring the Wildcats until early in the fourth quarter.
With the Black Panthers and Wildcats battling in a tight game early in the third quarter, Baker quickly carried his team out of the potential halftime letdown and into a double-digit lead.
Taking the ball down the floor on the opening possession of the half, Baker cut to his right to drive in the lane but lost his balance and briefly resorted to his best home-plate slide. Keeping control of the ball through the motion, Baker regained his footing and drained a foul-line jumper to put the Black Panthers ahead by three, 26-23.
With the Black Panthers holding a small lead, their defensive pressure kept Mifflinburg out of their rhythm on the offensive end. Logan Feltman swiped the ball away and sprinted in for a layup and Baker matched Jordan Wagner step-for-step on the perimeter to cause a five-second call on the Wildcats’ next possession.
With loose balls falling their way, the Black Panthers continued to pull away, with the Wildcats knocking the ball out of Baker’s hands on the perimeter with the Black Panthers leading by seven, 30-23. Feltman raced over to corral the loose ball and quickly dished to Baker for an open 3-pointer to push the Black Panthers’ lead to double digits.
Mifflinburg cut the lead to six points but Milton responded with Krall and Baker combining to score 11 straight points to give the Black Panthers a 44-27 lead.
With Baker on the outside and Krall inside, the Black Panthers extended their lead to 19 by the end of the third quarter.
Bruno credited the play of his team’s defense in the third quarter with helping to turn a tight game into a double-digit Black Panthers lead.
Mifflinburg cut the lead to 11 midway through the fourth quarter before Baker responded with his last five points of the game to push the Milton advantage back to 16.
In the first half, Mifflinburg withstood a scoring barrage from Baker to match Milton shot-for-shot.
Starting the game with an exquisite touch on his shots, Baker scored 10 of Milton’s 15 points with Wade Heidel and Feltman also providing buckets. With scoring from four different players, Mifflinburg trailed by a bucket after the first quarter, 15-13.
The Wildcats closed the second quarter on a 5-0 run as Milton held onto a 24-23 lead at the half.