After holding a lead as high as 21 points in the first half, the Trinity Lutheran boys basketball team let off the gas and faced adversity following halftime.
Despite West Washington closing the gap to five points, the Cougars’ Daniel Horton came through in the clutch nailing all eight of his free throws in the final minute of play for a 55-45 win to punch Trinity’s ticket to today’s Class A Sectional 61 title game.
In the first quarter, the Cougars came out on an offensive tear going on an 8-0 run behind baskets from Jacob Christopher, Horton, Toby VanLiew and Luke Stuckwisch.
Another basket from VanLiew, at the 1:15 mark, helped the Cougars to a 13-5 lead following the first eight minutes of play.
The Cougars’ Jacob Schult made his presence known off the bench by scoring the first two baskets in the second quarter to put the Cougars up 17-5.
Following a 3-pointer from the Senators’ Peyton Walker, the Cougars went on a 12-0 run capped by a Horton free throw with 1:45 left in the half.
At the halftime buzzer, Keegan Rebber buried a jump shot to give the Cougars a 35-14 lead.
“We started out in a man and moved on to a zone, and it seemed like it kind of got them out of rhythm,” Cougars coach Aaron Rudzinski said. “They had a hard time making shots and we were controlling the rebounds. Everything was going well on the offensive side, everyone was making plays. We were able to build a nice lead.”
The Senators came out with a different presence of mind in the second half.
Hunter Sanford helped the Senators go on a 10-2 run with 5:05 left in the third quarter ny scoring seven points.
In the final five minutes of the third, the Senators narrowed their deficit to 43-32 thanks to six points from six-foot-six forward Jacob Pollock in the post.
In the fourth quarter, the Cougars turned over the ball seven times.
At 1:24, the Senators’ Noah Green hit a pair of free throws to bring the score to 49-44 in favor of the Cougars.
The Senators had a shot to bring the game within one score, but failed to convert before having to foul on every Cougars possession.
“We struggled taking care of the ball,” Rudzinski said. “Usually when we have a big lead we can step on the gas and keep it. That was our goal coming out of the locker room — to ramp up the intensity. The tendency is to relax when you have a lead. They had some good shots and got some momentum and one thing kind of lead to the next. It doesn’t take a lot to have a team get back into a game, even if they’re down 20 points.”
Horton finished as the high-man for the Cougars with 23 points while Christopher added 12.
Sanford led the Senators with 11 points.
“(Horton) came out and really played a nice game all-around,” Rudzinski said. “Daniel went to the basket strong and was able to hit some shots. Down the stretch, him hitting all eight of his free throws really sealed the win for us. If he had missed two or three of those it would have been a different story.
Last season, the Cougars (18-5) defeated Orleans 55-34 in the sectional final.
The two teams did not meet during the regular season.
“At times we didn’t handle the pressure all that well in the fourth quarter, but this is sectional: it’s a different kind of mental pressure. We need to reactivate it and get ready for (tonight).”