Four empty possessions at crunch time.
Two missed 3-point shots, and two others on turnovers proved to be the downfall for St. Mary Central Catholic Friday night at jam-packed Willard High School in its 67-60 loss in a Division IV district championship game to No. 7-ranked Buckeye Central.
The Panthers (19-7) were very much in the game, trailing by just four points, when the misfires and mistakes cost them a chance at making the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years.
SMCC also lost to Colonel Crawford by a point in overtime (79-78) two seasons ago at Willard in the district final.
Making the empty possessions hurt more was Buckeye’s Cade Kaple, as he made strong drives to the basket after both misses.
A 3-pointer by Melvin Jackson finally hit the mark with 1:38 left in the game to trim the Buckeye Central (23-2) lead to 59-57, but Grant Loy got two of those points back with a goal on the other end.
When the Panthers failed to reply, B.C. coach Phil Loy asked his team to go into the four-corner stall. In going for the steal, Panther veteran Lucas Will was called for his fifth foul.
St. Mary was still within reach, however, when Denarius Harris stepped to the line facing a 1-and-l situation with just under a minute left. He missed the first shot and Bucks’ Sam Robertson grabbed the stray and was quickly fouled. He made both, two of six free throws the winners knocked down when every point was critical.
“We fell in love with the three-point shot when I question whether we needed to,” SMCC coach Lyle Falknor said. “I know we had trouble getting the ball to the basket late and admittedly, the shots were wide open, but they are only going to go down 30 percent of the time.
“And we made too many ball handling mistakes late in the game,” he added. “It seemed like Buckeye Central players followed them with near uncontested drives to the basket. I just know the two by Kaple were big for them. He was a matchup problem for us all night, and from what I saw on tapes, he was a matchup problem for everyone.”
Despite leading by six points at one point, Falknor said he never felt like his team was in control.
“Buckeye Central is a very talented ballclub with no weaknesses,” he said. “And when you are up against that kind of talent, every mistake you make is magnified. That’s what happened late in the game. We came up with empty possessions and they found ways to score on the other end.”
Both teams pressured the basketball end-line to end-line at the start. Already then, it appeared that it would be a survival of the fittest. B.C. grabbed the early lead and could have had much more than a 14-11 advantage at the end of the first quarter had it converted a number of foul shots.
It wasn’t until Denarius Harris connected on a 3 late in the second quarter that St. Mary grabbed its first lead, 23-22. It was be short-lived. B.C. tied the game at 24 and got back-to-back goals from Cole Stacklin, his only points of the game, and a buzzer-beating drive and goal from Kaple, to rebuild its lead to 32-27 at halftime.
SMCC quickly reeled the Bucks back in, however. With Will back on the floor after early foul trouble, the Panthers took a 39-38 lead with 3:59 left in the third quarter on two Brett St. Clair free throws.
Points then came easier after that, as a free throw by Harris and a 3-pointer from Trevor Fitzthum, and two more free throws from Will gave the Panthers a 45-39 lead.
But SMCC did not play well on the lead. The Bucks already had it back down to 45-43 by the end of the quarter, and early in the fourth tied it at 45.
It was tied two more times before Will again got some daylight with a pair of free throws, followed by an acrobatic tip that kept his team up, 54-51.
But, then came the love for the three-point shots and the heroics of Kaple.
“We knew it would take our best effort to beat St. Mary,” Buckeye coach Phil Loy said. “They are long and very quick, both of those attributes making for tough matchups. They were the team that I saw as the one that stood in our way from a spot in the regionals.
“I am not sure just what happened to their defense, or if we ran solid offensive plays to clear the way for Cade on those two drives,” he added. “I just know they were huge answers at the right time.”
Jackson, despite wearing a boot the last two days, led St. Mary with 23 points. Will added 10.
The Panthers were 20-of-54 from the field to go with 14-of-24 from the foul line. They turned the ball over 15 times while coming away with 33 rebounds, nine of them by Harris and seven by Trenton Zimmerman.
Kaple led B.C. with 18, while Austin Wurm had 13 and Robertson added 11. The Bucks showed 27-of-58 from the field to go with 11-of-21 foul line figures. They turned the ball over 14 times and had 32 rebounds, seven of them by both Wurm and Robertson.
Playing their final game for SMCC included Will, Harris, St. Clair, Nick Bostater and Kyle Nye.