The way Freedom and Xavier kept burying shots from the perimeter, it seemed unlikely that defense was going to win a free-flowing, three-point war.
The Irish, though, turned its focus from shooting to shut-down defense in the final minute to make a game-winning stop.
Freedom extended on Xavier’s shooters and smothered the Hawks on the final possession to win a 63-61 Eastern Valley Conference boys’ basketball thriller Friday night.
Xavier’s final possession started with 28.1 seconds remaining, but the Hawks couldn’t break down Freedom’s man-to-man defense and get a good look. Xavier’s Jeremiah Ellis missed on a well-defensed three-point attempt in the closing seconds and Tommy Johnson’s off-balance put-back at the buzzer failed to drop, giving Freedom an inspiring season-opening victory.
“You always just hold your breath in the final minute like that because you never know what’s going to happen at the end,” said Freedom coach John Van Rossum. “Defensively, we didn’t do a good job of communicating all night, until those final two minutes. That’s when we started talking and made sure we had our switches. At the end, we didn’t give them a clean look.”
Xavier coach Matt Klarner felt his team passed on some promising options during the final possession.
“We had a shot at the top, possibly a shot on the wing, and we had a look inside,” said Klarner. “We probably should have thrown the ball inside but we didn’t. Credit Freedom. They defended us well that last possession and made us take a tough shot.”
Both teams shot the ball exceptionally well, which isn’t usually the case in season openers. The two squads combined for a whopping 20 three-pointers: 11 by Xavier and nine by Freedom. Ellis, a junior sharp-shooter, topped all scorers with 20 points and drained six three-pointers.
“The defenses weren’t maybe what they need to be,” said Klarner. “I don’t think our guys did a good enough job of extending out on them. I think our young guys learned a lot about how well you have to guard players of this level. We need to defend shooters better.”
Senior guard D.J. Jahnke topped the balanced Irish with 15 points and sophomore Collin Hofacker added 13, including three three-pointers.
“We’re not a big team,” said Jahnke. “Our biggest guy is only 6-3, but size doesn’t matter. We’re a team that just keeps pushing and pushing.”
Van Rossum likes the energy level, enthusiasm and competitiveness of his Irish.
“We’re guard-oriented, but these kids compete,” he said. “We have 10 guys that come to the gym every day ready to play. They love to play the game and that carried through tonight. They compete on every possession.”
Freedom drilled five of its three-pointers in the first quarter to build a 22-13 lead and led by as much as eight in the third quarter. Ellis, though, hit four three-pointers in the third quarter and Seth Maertz added another to pull Xavier into a 48-48 tie heading into the fourth quarter.
Freedom took the lead for good, 58-56, with 2:25 remaining on a driving layup by Hofacker followed by a runner inside the lane by Jahnke.
“We got outworked and outplayed that first quarter,” said Klarner. “After that, I thought we slowly started to win the battle. If we had to play a fifth quarter, who knows? But I think this will be a positive experience for us because we had some young kids who grew up a little tonight.”
Xavier: Sawasky 7, Ellis 20, Orzepowski 9, Kinderman 4, Maertz 17, Johnson 4. Totals: 22 6-13 61. Three-pointers: Ellis 6, Orzepowski 2, Maertz 2, Sawasky 1. Fouls: 15. Fouled out: Sawasky.
Freedom: Green 9, Jahnke 15, Waters 8, Hofacker 13, Maulick 3, Connely 9, Hicks-Klund 6. Totals: 21 12-14 63. Three-pointers: Hofacker 3, Jahnke 2, Green 1, Maulick 1, Connely 1, Waters 1. Fouls: 16. Fouled out: Green.
— Tim Froberg: 920-993-1000, ext. 423, or email@example.com; On Twitter @twfroberg