At first it seemed like Columbia City was going to cruise to an easy victory at Concordia Lutheran on Friday. Instead a rally by the Cadets made the game close and the Eagles had to hold on for a 54-49 win.
Down 17 points with just over four minutes left in the game, the Concordia Lutheran seniors weren't going down without a fight on senior night. Austin Harris made a three-pointer followed by a steal and layup from Ryan Gross. Not to be outdone by his classmates, Thomas Starks hit two free throws.
The talented Cadets upperclassmen wouldn't be the only issue for Columbia City either, as free throw woes hit the Eagles. In the final 1:37, the Eagles would miss the front end of a one-and-one three times. This was coupled with threes from Concordia Lutheran's Harris and senior Marq Rogers.
It was 13 straight points from Concordia Lutheran, which battled back to a four-point deficit and had the ball with just under a minute to play.
Then, Columbia City's defense made a critical play, forcing a turnover on Concordia Lutheran junior DJ McCall that led to a bucket and a six-point lead with under 30 seconds to play, and finally, Derek Hinen hit two free throws to seal it.
“Obviously, wish we hit some free throws down the stretch to make it not as nerve-wracking as it was, but just really proud of our guys …. just kind of hanging on,” Columbia City head coach Chris Benedict said. “They're a good team, knew they were going to come at you at some time. Just try to take care of the basketball and hit shots.”
The Eagles were able to hang on in large part thanks to their own third quarter run. After taking Columbia City took a 24-21 lead into halftime, Concordia Lutheran opened the second half with five early points to take the lead 26-24.
Columbia City responded with a 17-4 run to blow the game open. This was possible due to a patient offense and zone defense that frustrated Concordia Lutheran.
Offensively, Columbia City worked the ball and ran screens and cuts repeatedly until it found the open layup inside. Routinely it turned down open looks outside to have Hinen cut through the lane on a backdoor cut where he finished himself with an easy layup or dumped it to a wide-open man underneath as Concordia Lutheran rotated its help defense.
“They (Columbia City) space the floor so well,” Concordia Lutheran coach Josh Eggold said, “and when you have guarded for 45 seconds or a minute and then someone decides to penetrate, to be defending that long, and then try to get someone to rotate to that guy who's driving when you're spaced across the floor because of the respect for their 3-point shooters, it does make it hard.”
Just as Columbia City looked to find open men underneath, it took that option away from Concordia Lutheran. The Eagles employed a zone that collapsed anytime Concordia passed inside to force the Cadets to shoot jumpshots.
It worked well covering almost everyone and could have led to a blowout if it weren't for Harris. The Concordia Lutheran senior kept the Cadets in the game with his long range shooting as he hit seven 3-pointers on nine attempts to finish with a game-high 21 points. Hinen led Columbia City with 20 points.
“DJ (McCall) and Marq Rogers can get to the basket so well on the perimeter, Gross is a really great penetrator as well, so we just wanted to try and keep the ball out of the paint as best as we could,” Benedict said. “Once that gets in there, that frees up their offensive rebounders if your back guy has to help. Kind of wanted to make them shoot perimeter jumpers. Obviously, we needed to get to the one kid (Harris) a little quicker than we did.”
While Benedict may not have wanted his Columbia City (19-3) team to miss free throws and have it come down to the last minute, Concordia Lutheran (17-4) did provide them with a great test headed into postseason play.
“Every game is going to be like that in the tournament,” Benedict said. “I mean, it's going to be nip and tuck, it's going to be every possession is a big possession.”
COLUMBIA CITY 54, CONCORDIA 49
Columbia City 12 12 17 13 — 54
Concordia Lutheran 8 13 9 19 — 49
Columbia City - Benedict 10, Hinen 20, Coverstone 8, Woll 8, Paul 4, Simmons 4
Concordia Lutheran - Harris 21, Gross 4, Gremaux 2, McCall 8, Starks 9, Rogers 5