Special to LTN
PUMPKIN CENTER â€” The odds kept stacking up against North Lincoln.
First, starting guard Hunter Caldwell broke his arm in practice Monday and is likely done for the season. Then on Tuesday night, the Knights fell behind by 13 points entering the final quarter against Highland Tech, which entered the game sitting in second place in the Southern Piedmont standings.
But as the Rams clanged one free throw after another off the rim, it looked as if things were finally turning in the Knights favor.
Thatâ€™s when Highland Techâ€™s Jevon Patton drilled a three-pointer as time expired to drop the Knights 55-52 after they nearly pulled off a textbook comeback.
â€œI was real proud of the guys for continuing to fight back,â€ North Lincoln coach Eric King said. â€œWe got down seven, came back. We got down 13 and then came back and had a chance to win.â€
Without Caldwellâ€”he was averaging 9.1 points with a team-best 24 three-pointersâ€”the task of beating Rams, which handled North Lincoln 76-48 on Dec. 13, was going to be difficult already.
And when the Rams ended the third quarter on a 12-0 run to build a 44-31 lead, it looked like another blowout was in the works. But thatâ€™s when things became interesting.
The Knights (11-6, 5-4 in Southern Piedmont) deployed a half-court trapping defense, which forced several turnovers and also put the Rams on the foul lineâ€”a good thing for the Knights. The Rams made just 6 of 20 free throws in the final eight minutes.
Behind Gray Brotherton, who scored 11 of his team-high 22 points in the fourth quarter, the Knights took advantage of the Ramsâ€™ foul-shooting woes.
Trailing 49-41 with 4:16 left, North Lincolnâ€™s Christian Ramos (11 points) converted a three-point play and then sank two free throws after a turnover to trim the Highland Tech lead to 49-46. Patton, who had missed four consecutive free throws, then made one of two before Brotherton sank two foul shots to make it 50-48 with 2:18 remaining.
Patton, who hit 6 of 12 free throws in the fourth quarter and finished with a game-high 31 points, made two more free throws as Ramos fouled out with 1:43 left.
Two more Brotherton foul shots brought the Knights to within 52-50 with 59.4 seconds left in the game.
Then Highland Techâ€™s Ti Alexander, who had a nightmare of a fourth quarter, missing all eight of his free throw attempts, missed his final two. After a timeout, Justin Henson hit Landon Yabrough (seven points) under the basket for a layup to pull the Knights even, 52-52, with 29.4 seconds.
Highland Tech (10-5, 7-2 SPC) held for the final shot and Patton drilled a contested 22-footer and the final two seconds ran off the clock.
â€œI was sitting there thinking as it was coming down: do you go ahead and foul and give yourself a chance to win, put them on the line even though it is tie?â€ King said. â€œIâ€™ll second guess myself all night on that one because you try to take the ball out of the hands of a great player at the end of the game. Itâ€™s risky, but obviously now, if I have to do it over again, I would choose it.â€