Thank goodness for clutch free-throw shooting.
With its offense struggling at times, McCallie relied heavily on fourth-quarter free throw shooting Saturday to post a 58-48 Division II-AA East/Middle Region basketball victory over visiting Pope John Paul at the Blue Tornado Sports and Activity Center.
“I’m really glad our guys can make free throws,” said McCallie’s Adrian Thomas, who led the Tornado with 18 points. “If we hadn’t made free throws we couldn’t have won that game.”
McCallie (10-9, 4-0 region), stayed atop the standings by hitting 17 of 31 free throws in the game, including 13 of 23 in the fourth quarter, while going the final 3 minutes and 10 seconds with just one field goal.
JaVaughn Craig, slowed somewhat by the Knights’ box-and-one defense, hit 5 of 6 charity tosses in the final period. C.J. Fritz made 3 of 4, but Winston Whitener, Thomas, Alex Clark, Jordan Atkins and Cam Walker combined to make 5 of 13.
Pope John Paul (14-10, 2-4) was 7 of 14 from the line – that’s the 10-point difference in the score.
“Pope John Paul played very good defense,” said Tornado coach Dan Wadley, who registered his 603rd career win while his team won its fifth in a row. “They played a box-and-one on JaVaughn and our guys had never seen that. We struggled early, but stayed with it.
“I thought we played excellent in the fourth quarter and kept hitting our free throws by getting the right people up there.”
While PJP’s defense bothered the Blue Tornado, the Knights weren’t exactly slicing up McCallie’s tenacious man-to-man defense. The Knights had 28 points going into the fourth quarter and trailed by nine points.
When Jordan Atkins and Whitener each hit 1 of 2 free tosses, sandwiching Mark Batsko’s layup, McCallie had a 41-30 lead with 6:32 left in the game.
Batsko had a put-back basket and Ricky Lang hit two free throws – he scored 10 of his 12 points in the fourth quarter – and McCallie’s lead was 43-34.
Lang made a bucket, but the Tornado’s Cam Walker, who scored 11 points, hit two free throws and Craig’s putback against produced an 11-point lead.
Craig’s bucket was the last field goal for McCallie until Walker’s layup with 1:46 remaining that maintained the 11-point spread at 52-41.
“I thought we struggled offensively,” PJP coach Kip Brown said, “and part of that was McCallie’s defensive effort. For whatever reason, we could not get in sync on offense. We weren’t patient, rushed things and didn’t play with much poise. They were out there guarding us, so you have to give them some credit.”
C.J. Fritz’s free throw at the 1:29 mark gave McCallie a 53-41 cushion. Down the stretch Craig went 4 for 4 from the line and Whitener added one, helping to keep the Knights at bay.
Dalton Smith hit a 3 and Lang had a putback and two free throws for PJP’s last seven points over the final 80 seconds.
McCallie’s defense had to make up for another scoring lapse in the second quarter.
Thomas’ corner 3 gave the Tornado a 26-11 lead, their biggest of the game, with 5:01 left in the first half.
However, the Tornado failed to score in the final 5:01 of the period and went 1:31 deep into the third quarter before Thomas ended the offensive drought with a putback. Less than a minute earlier Smith’s 3 started the third-quarter scoring and cut McCallie’s lead to 26-21.
“Between the second quarter scoreless stretch and holding them to one field in the final three minutes, I’d say we had our opportunities to get in the game or take the lead. We just didn’t capitalize.”
After building a 10-point, first-quarter lead, the Tornado managed just nine points in the second period and had a 26-18 halftime spread.
“We’re known for starting real slow,” said Thomas, who had nine first-half points and nine more in the third quarter. “Today part of that was their defense. We turned up our defense in the last three minutes.”
PJP had just one basket – a 3 by Smith with 1:20 left – over the final three minutes.
The Blue Tornado executed Wadley’s fourth-quarter plan pretty well and it helped preserve the victory.
“We told them if they’d just run the motion press break we can attack the rim, which we did,” Wadley said. “We made some layups and then got in a free throw contest.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t a contest at all.
McCallie returns to the court Tuesday, hosting Hamilton Heights, which finished third in the recent Scenic City Showcase.
The Blue Tornado has three region games remaining against Baylor, Father Ryan and Montgomery Bell Academy – the first two are at home.
Pope John Paul 7 11 10 20 – 48
McCallie 17 9 13 19 – 58
Pope John Paul (48) – Batsko 4, Reed, Smith 6, Sypert, Whitner 2, Lanigan, McConnell, Cambridge 6, Ryan Hatten 18, Scholato, Ricky Lang 12, Hayes.
McCallie (58) – Fritz 5, Bowman, JaVaughn Craig 14, Adrian Thomas 18, Whitener 5, Alford 2, Clark 2, Atkins 1, Cam Walker 11, McDonald.
3-Point Goals – Pope John Paul 5 (Smith 2, Cambridge 2, Hatten); McCallie 3 (Thomas 2, Craig).
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)