Johnson City’s boys barged back from a 16-point third-quarter deficit Thursday night to deal Owego’s division title aspirations a severe setback with a 55-52 Southern Tier Athletic Conference basketball victory.
The guests trailed by 12 midway into the fourth quarter and snatched the lead for keeps on Ricky Balles’ layup off a turnover with two minutes remaining. That brought the Wildcats’ final-period point total to 15 — after they’d mustered 13 in the first half courtesy of perfectly icy perimeter shooting.
Balles closed with 15 points, and Nick Chilson and freshman Patrick Garey 10 apiece for JC (6-9, 5-5 STAC). Brandon Hathaway’s 17 points topped Owego, which dipped to a 5-5 conference record, one back of Central Division-leading Susquehanna Valley — each with a game remaining.
Those who departed at halftime had little reason to believe Owego was in even the slightest jeopardy of relinquishing the upper hand. Not among those so convinced, however, was Indians coach Bryan Hathaway.
“They did the same thing to us last year,” he said. “We were up by about the same amount and they came back to beat us right here. I told our boys about that at halftime. I said, ‘Remember, it is not over.’ “
Perhaps not at that juncture, but when Zach Thomas jarred a 3-point goal from the corner with no hint of leather-to-iron contact, it was a 39-23 difference with 1:40 of the third quarter remaining.
What no one could have envisioned was that 8½ minutes would expire before the Indians would scrounge up their next field goal. JC, meanwhile, evidently decided “Enough of this malarkey!”
A pair of free throws by Max Marshall with 1:34 left set in motion a nine-point Wildcats surge to close the quarter. It was a rally that included Marshall converting a put-back and, with two seconds to go, Garey flinging in a super-deep 3-pointer from high on the wing in front of his team’s bench.
That one raised the eyebrows of coach Bill Spalik, clearly impressed with the youngster’s poise in the moment — and perhaps hinting at his elation that Garey will wear the Wildcats’ colors for another three winters.
JC was handed a gift to open fourth-quarter play in the form of a fourth foul assessed Will Gladney, Owego’s sophomore forward and the most potentially effective interior presence on the floor.
The second-to-last two-digit Owego lead went up in a puff when Chilson bagged a 3-pointer off a penetration and exit pass from Balles, and the last went south when Matt Czeitner’s lone goal of the night went for three more and had JC within 45-38 with 3:47 remaining.
Balles followed with an end-to-end rush for two off an Owego miss, and his three-point play on a steal-and-go from near midcourt made it 45-43 with three minutes remaining.
Owego proceeded to turn over the basketball against JC’s press and miss two free throws before Marshall converted in transition off that second miss from the line and it was 45-45. Next came Balles to the rim for the go-ahead bucket.
“In the second half, we had Balles slashing a little bit more to create shots — open looks and open shots,” Spalik said. “Him slashing into the lane off the dribble is really what gave us the open shots.”
Another Owego giveaway was followed by Marshall blasting to the goal for another layup for a 49-45 advantage with 90 seconds remaining. Gladney’s put-back with 1:13 to play had the Indians within two for the final time.
The hosts’ hopes were attached to life support when Balles — there’s that name again — zipped to the block to accept Garey’s baseline inbound for a goal. He was whacked on the finish, converted the free throw and it was 53-47 with 27.6 to play.
The final margin is mildly misleading as Owego edged within three when Thomas hit his third 3-pointer of the night from the corner in molested fashion with a second on the clock.
As for the root of his team’s lead evaporating?
“Pressure,” coach Hathaway said. “The boys started turning the ball over. They panicked, they didn’t do simple things — passing the ball against the zone press, taking some quick shots when you’re up 15.”
What a turnabout from the opening half, when it was 17-4 when Gladney’s set shot from the corner brought three points, 21-7 when Tyler Ford coaxed in an over-the-shoulder reverse, and 27-11 when Ford finished ahead of a retreating defensive pack.
“What dug the hole was, we didn’t make a shot in the first half,” Spalik said. “We scored 13 points in the half.
“We were definitely getting the looks we wanted to get, we just couldn’t knock anything down. And to credit Owego, we never had a free shot. There was a hand in our face all the first half, we just couldn’t make anything.”