ELDORA - Experience made the difference down the stretch here Friday night.
And a big sigh of relief, along with smiles, came after the final buzzer sounded.
Coming off a double overtime defeat against West Marshall just three days prior, South Tama's boys basketball team (6-8) didn't seem bothered during the final minutes of the North Iowa Cedar League West Division contest. The STC players seemed calm and collected in the closing moments of another down-to-the-wire battle Friday, holding off South Hardin (5-10) 52-48.
South Tama senior Clay Waterbury scores two of his four points Friday at South Hardin. STC defeated the Tigers 52-48.
"When we walked in the locker room after the game, that's exactly what the kids said," coach Lonnie Hammond said. "We've been there. Even on the bench, when the kids came out, they said, 'we've been here. We know what we need to do.' My kids didn't panic at all. They played until the final whistle."
Both teams struggled to score points during the fourth quarter. With the game tied at 46-46 with 4:36 remaining, STC sophomore Ian Slagle hit a pair of foul shots to give the Trojans a two-point advantage.
South Hardin's Bryce Zeisneiss , who led all scorers with 19 points, grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to knot the game at 48-48 with 1:38 remaining. STC sophomore Grant Koch was fouled just 22 seconds later. Koch sank both free throws.
Coming out of a timeout, South Hardin missed a three-pointer that would have given the Tigers a one-point lead. Following an STC timeout, senior Sam Kuhter was fouled. Kuhter made both foul shots. The Tigers turned it over on the next possession and missed two more shots before the clock expired.
"The difference down the stretch was we made our free throws," Hammond said. "We valued the ball and made simple plays. In the end, it came down to a couple of defensive stops and we came down and made some free throws."
The Trojans hit 13-of-17 free throw attempts on the night - including a 9-for-11 effort in the fourth, while limiting South Hardin to 7-of-9 for the game. It was point of emphasis for the Trojans after allowing the Tigers to shoot 16 free throws in their previous meeting.
"The first time we played South Hardin, we put them on the line quite a bit," Hammond said. "We talked tonight about how we didn't want to put them on the line. I think, overall, that became the biggest difference."
Kuhter led the Trojans with 16 points, while senior Jose Fonseca added 11 points. Koch and Slagle each contributed eight points to the Trojans victory.
"They gave us great minutes," Hammond said of sophomores Koch and Slagle. "Between the two of them, we got 16 points at that spot. We made some free throws, got some shots and grabbed some rebounds. What we're evolving into is one guy will have a great night one night and the next team will try to scout against that. Then someone else will step up. We're getting some really nice balance in terms of effort and execution. We're really starting to play well together."
Zeisneiss imposed his will early in the contest. He scored the first three buckets of the game as South Hardin built a quick 6-0 lead. He added another basket later in the quarter. Slagle also made his presence known as he scored four points during the opening minutes, but South Hardin led 14-10 after the first quarter.
South Tama quickly tied the game in the second quarter. Fonseca scored twice and Kuhter added another basket as the Trojans tied the game at 16-16. It was tied 20-20 before the Trojans went on a 4-0 run, which was answered with a 5-0 spurt by South Hardin. Points from Koch, Kuhter and Fonseca during the final 1:48 of the half, gave the Trojans a 30-25 lead at the break.
"Right now, we're growing as a team," Hammond said. "The benefits of that are you win a road game against a quality team. We just continue to build our base of knowledge. The kids have a really good understanding of what we're trying to do. I feel really good about where we are right now as a team.
"I'm really proud of them tonight," he said. "When you go on the road in the NICL, it's a tough night no matter what. Tonight we made the plays we needed on the road and now we can enjoy it for the weekend."
South Tama will play three games this week. STC will play at Wapsie Valley on Tuesday, BCLUW at home Friday and at Union (La Porte City) on Saturday. STC will also play at Gladbrook-Reinbeck on Jan. 29.
"The season isn't about one game," Hammond said. "You want to get on a winning streak. I think we have an opportunity to improve. Wapsie Valley is not going to be easy. I will maintain that on both sides of the NICL, Wapsie Valley is the toughest place to go and play in the conference."