The Old Fort Stockaders played the aggressors' role for much of their Division IV regional semifinal last night at Savage Hall against Delphos St. John's.
But when crunch time arrived, the Blue Jays took over and advanced to the final with a 65-61 victory.
St. John's (18-6) will face the Holgate Tigers in Friday's 7:30 p.m. regional final here, after veteran coach Paul Wayne's team ousted Continental 50-44 in last night's second semifinal.
The Jays trailed for most of the second half after Old Fort's Nick Kerlin gave the Stockaders a 31-29 edge with a tip-in 1:19 into the third quarter, and Old Fort led by as many as seven points (39-32) midway in the third.
“They took it right at us,” St. John's coach Brett Norris said. “But it's hard not to be proud of our kids for hanging in there. We weren't real good defensively until we had to be.”
St. John's continued to claw back, and took its first lead of the half 56-55 on a Nate Klaus jumper from the lane with 1:59 remaining.
That basket signaled the beginning of the end for the Stockaders, who were outscored 11-6 in the final two minutes. After forcing an Old Fort turnover with 1:38 left, the Jays took a 58-55 lead on two Keith Recker free throws with 1:30 to go.
“It looked like they were in control, and then they lost the lead, and that can be frustrating,” Norris said of Old Fort's finish. “I think we won it as a team. Certainly, 3-point shooting has been a strength of this team throughout the year, and we've been able to stretch defenses.”
Forced to foul, the Stockaders watched the Blue Jays ice the game by hitting seven of eight free throws in the final 1:17.
Klaus topped DSJ with 17 points and Mike Anthony added 14.
Old Fort (20-4), which saw its 14-game winning streak snapped, got 16 points from Drew Gaietto, 13 from Lucas Stearns and 12 from Kerlin.
“It was right there for us but I think Delphos' experience and their aggressiveness took the game away from us there in the last couple minutes,” Old Fort coach Rick Renz said. “Down the stretch that's what got us, how aggressively they played.
“We had a chance to go up by nine or 10 points [in third quarter] and instead they cut it back down to four or five and then down to two. That's a big momentum change.”
In the second semifinal, Holgate, which closed the regular season with a disappointing 9-11 record, had spotted Continental (17-8) an early 9-2 lead when the Pirates' Brandon Clementz hit two free throws with 3:06 left in the first quarter.
But then the Tigers began to hit stride behind Charlie Kelly and Adam Huber.
“Continental got out of the blocks really well and we held our heads,” Wayne said. “We wanted to make sure to get good possessions on offense. We were a little too quick early on.
“They got what they wanted early on, but our kids just locked down on defense. The last month, when we've played some pretty good basketball, we've been getting it done with our defense.”
From the time of Clementz's foul shots until teammate Casey Spitnale's 3-pointer with 5:08 left in the third quarter - a span of nearly 14 minutes - Holgate outscored the Pirates 32-10.
Continental, which may have spent itself physically and emotionally in last Friday's 80-79 four-overtime victory over Pandora-Gilboa in the district finals, had one last rally.
The Pirates whittled a 34-19 Holgate lead down to 36-26 by the end of the third quarter, and eventually got within 42-39 on two Brad Booth free throws with 1:10 remaining.
“Continental came back at us with tremendous pressure, and earlier in the year we would've folded,” Wayne said. “But we hit just enough free throws and we took real good care of the basketball. We did not turn it over.”
But the Tigers responded with Kelly's pair from the line six seconds later and hit 8 of 12 free throws in the final 1:04 to keep their unlikely tournament run alive.
Huber topped the Tigers with 20 points and Kelly added 14.
Spitnale led the Pirates with 16 and Ryan Winkle had 10.