he zero that remained under Fair Grove on the scoreboard for the first five-and-a-half minutes was indicative of how hard points were to come by in Saturday night’s district title game.
With baskets even harder to sink than in Fair Grove’s 59-51 win eight days prior, the Eagles’ dozen points in the fourth quarter were enough to get by Strafford again, 34-31.
Strafford had several opportunities to extend the game in the closing moments. Zak Lutgen couldn’t benefit from a whistle on his leaning 3-pointer from the wing within a crowd of Eagles, but the Indians rebounded it nonetheless and were able to call a timeout with 4.3 ticks left. Cade Rear got off a better look from up top when play resumed, but his shot hit inside the iron and rattled out as the Indians’ bid to avenge the prior loss fell just short.
“The kids executed perfectly,” Strafford head coach Tyler Ryerson said. “We ran Lutgen off a double screen and set a hammer screen for [Seth] Soden in the corner. Both guys came to it and it left Cade [Rear] wide open. He’s our highest 3-point percentage shooter on the season. You have our best shooter at the top of the key with nobody around him and one shot to send it to OT. Yeah, you couldn’t ask for any more.”
Following a missed trey by Clay Lawson inside the final three minutes, Zak Lutgen snared offensive rebound and was sent to the stripe, but missed the front end of his 1-and-1. On the other end, Eagles senior Cole Gilpin knocked down a pair at the line to make it 30-29, giving Fair Grove its first lead of the game with 2:10 to go.
Lutgen swiveled into the lane but couldn’t convert a right-handed hoop on Strafford’s next trip down, and eventually the Indians sent Gilpin to the line again for free throws with 38 seconds remaining. Strafford again made it a one-point game when the Eagles fouled Lutgen for a pair of free throws with 10.1 seconds left. After he made both, the Indians managed to foul again without any time leaving the lock, and Darin Oplotnik hit both to set the table for the last sequence.
The Indians, who began the game with seven unanswered, guarded remarkably well for large portions of the first three quarters. Fair Grove didn’t score until the 2:32 mark of the opening quarter, and also went scoreless for the first four minutes of the second. Strafford looked to be headed into the half carrying a 16-9 lead, too, until committing a foul with three seconds left. Though the Eagles made just one from the charity line, they got a quick steal and Gilpin banked a heaved 3-pointer in at the horn to shave some points off in no time.
“That spurt really,” Ryerson said. “We held them to nine for 15 minutes and 50 seconds and then they got a steal and the bank-in. I’m not sure it had any negative effects on our kids, but I think it gave them a bunch of confidence in the second half.”
Fair Grove managed to tie the game at 20-all late in the third quarter, but Soden restored the lead and invigorated the home fans by knocking down back-to-back triples.
The pace of the game didn’t much resemble the previous meeting, in which over 50 fouls were called, though Ryerson believed that getting into a rhythm offensively on Saturday was actually harder. “They did a good job mixing up defenses on us,” he said. “They went matchup zone on us a little bit, straight 2-3, a lot of man. We just couldn’t get downhill into the paint for drive-and-kicks. And they’re so long; they did a good job contesting while staying with their guy. It bothered us a little bit, the length.”
“I thought we guarded well enough to win, which has kind of been our trademark all year. We had spurts of being good offensively but it wasn’t enough. You’re not going to win a ton of games [scoring 34 points].”
Lutgen, who scored 16 points in the fourth quarter and 24 total in the semifinal win over Forsyth, again led Strafford with 12.
Ryerson raved about his seven-man senior class, which faced numerous injury hurdles.
“This group ended up winning 75 games in four years, and each of them fought through their own adversity,” Ryerson said. “We had three ACLs from this group –– Nick Losh tore his twice and Sawyer Lumley tore his –– and a broken neck with Gabe Mahon. They’ve all been through it, and it hurts now, but those guys are going to be fine in life.”
Strafford finished the year 18-10. The Eagles (20-5) play Pierce City in Willard following the Lady Indians’ sectional game on Wednesday.
Bryan can be followed on Twitter @BryanEversonMF.