It felt like a punch in the gut on Tuesday evening for Jonathan Alder’s varsity boys basketball team.
The Pioneers led Columbus Bishop Hartley by seven points at one juncture of the fourth quarter during the Division II district semifinals at Olentangy Orange High School.
The contest, though, slipped away from Alder when the Hawks’ Morgan Safford sank a trio of free throws with 0.8 seconds to play for a 36-35 Hartley victory.
The Pioneers, who finished the season with a record of 18-7, went into the battle short-handed.
Henry Walker, JA’s 6-7 junior post player, had to sit out the game in concussion protocol after an injury suffered Saturday evening against Buckeye Valley.
Walker’s absence meant that players such as Daniel Heinig, Jackson Izzard, Jacob Koenig and Jackie Santa-Emma had to go full bore with little or no rest during the 32-minute contest.
Alder coach Brent Cahill felt his squad did well to compensate for Walker’s absence.
“The guys played and executed the game plan we put in during just two days of practice,” he said.
The Pioneers did a solid job for much of the night, clamping down on defense in order to close down driving and passing lanes.
At the end of the day, however, it was the free throw line that spelled the difference in the outcome.
Alder, the No. 2 seed, was called for two late fouls on Hartley three-point attempts.
Safford made enough charity tosses to send the Hawks into Saturday evening’s district title game at Ohio Dominican University against Columbus St. Francis DeSales.
Despite the season-ending setback, the Pioneers were successful in what they wanted to do with the basketball.
Alder is known as a team that is never in a real hurry to score a flurry of points out of its half-court, motion offense.
“I felt that if we played a game in the 30’s or 40’s (points), we had a very good chance to win,” said Cahill.
JA worked the clock on its opening possessions, taking a 6-3 lead on trifectas by Santa-Emma and Izzard.
The Hawks, who were seeded fourth, tallied a couple of three-balls from Colby Rankin and Safford to narrow their deficit to 9-8.
Santa-Emma picked Hartley’s pocket on a pair of steals. He converted one into a transition layup for an 11-8 margin.
Both teams swapped possessions over the next several minutes.
Izzard scored along the baseline and Santa-Emma buried a three-ball to send Alder into the second quarter with a 16-8 advantage.
Hartley tallied five quick points to begin the ensuing stanza.
Heinig then scored on a stickback and Koenig tickled the twine on a pull-up jumper as JA’s lead expanded to 20-13.
The Pioneers controlled the game clock for the next several minutes.
The scoreboard, though, remained mostly motionless until Rankin hit a charity toss to pull Hartley to within 20-16 with 1:55 left in the half.
The teams exchanged empty possessions down the stretch as JA took its four-point margin into the break.
The Pioneers maintained leads of three-to-five points for a good portion of the third period.
Hartley, though, scored on Safford’s offensive rebound and Rankin’s three-ball to knot the game at 26-all with 1:25 on the timer.
The Hawks shut down Alder’s driving lanes, but the Pioneers were content to work the clock for a final shot.
Santa-Emma came through in the clutch, hitting a bucket that gave Alder a 28-26 edge at the end of the set.
Koenig opened the final period with a three-ball.
Izzard followed suit a couple minutes later as JA stretched its lead to 34-27.
The Pioneers continued to frustrate the Hawks with their slow-down offense and solid defensive effort.
Safford added a free throw and Kylan Kortokrax knocked down a trifecta, however, to pull Hartley to within 34-31 with 2:04 on the clock.
The teams traded empty possessions until JA’s Logan Stevens was fouled with 1:24 to play.
He sank one charity toss for a 35-31 lead.
Safford hit the front end of a one-and-one with 53.5 seconds to play, narrowing the Hawks’ deficit to 35-32.
Fans on both sides of the gym were on the edge of their seats as post-season advancement or elimination hung in the balance.
Alder missed a shot and the Hawks called a timeout after snaring the rebound.
When play resumed, Safford was fouled on a three-point attempt that failed to find its mark.
He made only one of his three free throw attempts, which kept JA up 35-33.
Hartley had to foul with 9.2 ticks on the timer.
Izzard was sent to the stripe for the one-and-one, but couldn’t connect on the first offering.
The Hawks hit the boards and worked the clock down until Safford launched a late trifecta.
The shot failed, but Alder was whistled for another foul with 0.8 seconds to play.
Safford toed the stripe with both teams’ season in the balance.
This time, he was spot on with his efforts.
He made the first shot to narrow the gap to 35-34.
Cahill called a timeout in an effort to rattle the shooter.
The strategy didn’t work.
Safford’s second free throw tied the game at 35 and his third gave Hartley its only lead of the game.
Alder attempted a long shot at the buzzer, but the ball fell well short.
“Hartley had seven offensive rebounds during the first half, but we made adjustments at halftime and only allowed two during the second half,” said a disappointed Cahill. “That really helped us, but free throws made a big difference tonight.”
Hartley hit eight of its 14 attempts from the stripe.
JA, on the other hand, visited the line only five times and made one.
Cahill questioned the late fouls called on his team, adding, “I felt our guys deserved to advance.
“In my heart of hearts, our guys deserved to win this game.”
Safford 5-7-18, Rankin 2-1-7, Kortokrax 2-0-6, Heuser 2-0-5, Albanese 0-0-0. Totals 11-8-36.
Three-point goals: Kortokrax 2, Rankin 2, Safford 1, Heuser 1.
Santa-Emma 4-0-10, Koenig 4-0-10, Izzard 4-0-10, Heinig 2-0-4, Stevens 0-1-1, Headings 0-0-0. Totals 14-1-35.
Three-point goals: Santa-Emma 2, Koenig 2, Izzard 2.
...For the full story, select an option below.