By Marc Tobias
COLUMBUS — After jumping out to a 15-2 first-quarter lead, St. Henry had to hold its collective breath when Loudonville’s C.J. Spreng got a three-pointer off just before the buzzer in an effort to tie the game.
When Spreng’s shot was off the mark it allowed St. Henry to escape with a 44-41 win and advance to Saturday’s Division III final against Versailles.
The Redskins should have easily put the game away as they led 42-35 with 54.7 seconds to play thanks to a break away layup by Steve Sutter.
Both sides then traded free throws, which were followed by the Red Birds’ Trevor Scott burying a three-pointer to cut the deficit to four points with 34.9 remaining.
Jeremy Schwieterman then sank one of two free throws for a 44-39 lead with 32.4 seconds remaining.
Ross Niekamp was unable to convert either of his two free-throw chances after Schwieterman, but when Sutter grabbed a loose ball rebound with eight seconds left and called a timeout, it appeared the Redskins had the game under control.
St. Henry couldn’t get the ball inbounded on its next possession, though, and the five-second violation returned the ball to Loudonville.
The Redskins then fouled Scott without having any time come off the clock, allowing Scott to go to the foul line for a one-and-one bonus situation. Scott sank both free throws and the ÔSkins lead was down to three at 44-41.
Loudonville was then whistled for a questionable intentional foul sending Schwieterman to the line for two more free throws.
“It definitely was an intentional foul, we had a hold of his shirt,” said Loudonville coach Mark Schlabach. “Do you call that in that situation? I don’t know, but it definitely was intentional.”
Schwieterman was unable to convert on either free throw, though, keeping the Red Birds within one possession.
After calling a timeout because they were again unable to inbound the ball, the Redskins attempted a baseball pass across midcourt to Kurt Huelsman, but Spreng was able to intercept it, dribble back across midcourt and launch a three at the buzzer that was just short.
“Is it safe to say not exactly a text book way to finish a game?,” said a relieved St. Henry coach Joe Niekamp after the thrilling win. “On the otherhand, all you have to do is survive at this level, and I think that’s what we emphasized to our kids in the locker room, and give Loudonville a lot of credit, they did a nice job coming back, but we think we’re capable and we still think we left a lot out there today. Maybe we do a better job of knocking some shots down and making our free throws to put ourselves in a little bit better position next game.”
St. Henry could have easily locked the game up at the foul line where it hit just 4-of-11 free throws in the final two and a half minutes. The Redskins sank just 8-of-21 foul shots for the game.
“I was hoping we’d make our free throws at the end, it’s kind of disappointing to win a game like that, but a win’s a win,” said Huelsman, who led all scorers with 17 points.
Thursday afternoons win also marked the third straight tournament game where the Redskins saw a big lead evaporate, but to their credit, they have held on every time because of solid defensive efforts.
Loudonville made a strong codege at the end of the third quarter, pulling to within eight points and looking to hold the ball for one shot.
That’s when Bryan Post came up with a big steal, and the junior took the ball the length of the court and threw down a one-handed dunk for a 38-28 St. Henry lead heading into the fourth.
“At the time that was a big play, that was a nice momentum changer I think that it maybe held them off for a while,” Joe Niekamp said. “Bryan’s been that kind of a player for us, he can be our spark with the way he plays defense and a lot of times he creates offense for himself, and that was a great play.”
Loudonville then hovered between an eight- and four-point deficit, and it had many chances to come even closer, but the Red Birds were unable to come up with an offensive flurry.
“These guys have the mind set after being through enough wars and battles, that even when things aren’t going maybe the way we’d like them to go, they know that if they hunker down and play defense then we have a great chance of winning the game,” Joe Niekamp said.
Loudonville finished by making just 16-of-54 shots (29 percent) which included just 4-of-29 (13 percent) from three-point range.
“They did a great job of taking away our inside game by playing us pretty soft on the perimeter, we just weren’t able to shoot the ball from the outside,” said Loudonville coach Mark Schlabach.
Huelsman and Sutter did an especially nice job of holding the Red Birds two post players in Shane Humphrey and Kyle Gillette to six points on 3-of-10 shooting.
The Redskin guards also did a nice job of limiting any easy entry passes to the two post players, forcing the Red Birds to hoist three-pointers.
“They did a nice job of forcing Shane and Kyle to catch the ball seven- or eight-feet from the bucket instead of two- or three-feet away, so when we’re not shooting well and we can’t get it inside then we’re going to have trouble scoring,” Schlabach said.
Despite the late struggles, St. Henry was very sharp in the first half when it shot 55-percent from the field.
Two players that really shined in the first half for St. Henry were Jeremy Schwieterman and Huelsman.
Schwieterman finished with 10 points, but his eight points at the half were double his season average while Huelsman also had 10 points at the break.
“They were leaving him on the perimeter and his man was trying to go and double down quite a bit,” Niekamp said. “He got to the basket a few times which was very good to see, when his man got his head turned around he was able to get some good penetration and make some good things happen.”
The Redskins led 28-15 at the break, and the two points it held Loudonville to in the first quarter is a record for the least points in any quarter scored in a Division III state semifinal or final game.
“When you don’t shoot it well we’re going to keep shooting it, but when you don’t shoot it well you need to get some offensive rebounds and we didn’t do that,” Schlabach said. “I don’t think we had an offensive rebound in the first half and I guarantee that’s the first time that’s happened. They’re a big, strong and physical team that’s well-coached and your not going to get cheap offensive rebounds. We needed to get some easy buckets early and we just didn’t.”
St. Henry improves to 21-5 while Loudonville falls to 23-3.
Ticket info: Tickets will be on sale at Gels Market from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday only. All tickets are $7 and game time is 11 a.m.