It wasn’t exactly standing room only Tuesday night at Belvidere High School. Even the band had the night off. However, as Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, “And gentlemen in England now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here”. Those few, those happy few at Wood Gym Tuesday night were witness to the most exciting game this season as the Bucs toppled the league leading Jefferson J-Hawks in a last second nail biter, 52 – 51.
Jefferson had the size. Three of their starting line-up were taller than Belvidere’s tallest player. They had speed and they had the talent. Coming in as the NIC-9’s only undefeated team in conference play, the J-Hawks made it look easy in the first quarter. Pat Nelson had an easy lay up under the basket to take the opening lead. On the defensive side, Nelson – standing 6’10” – looked to be impenetrable as he blocked the Bucs opening shot in the paint. The Bucs tied the game on an Adam Heaton jump shot, but Matt Peterson responded with a dunk before the Bucs defense could react. Anthony Goransen got into foul trouble early, getting two against him in the first three minutes.
However, things weren’t all going the J-Hawks way. Belvidere kept their defense tight, concentrating inside the perimeter. The J-Hawks were slow to react as their lanes inside were shut down. Goransen stripped the ball from Nelson and Adam Heaton took it away from Robert Eppinger. On the offensive side, the Bucs concentrated on keeping the ball out of the hands of the J-Hawks as much as possible. The Bucs started the game unchallenged before they reached mid court, so they took as much time as possible to get there. On the J-Hawks side of the court, the Bucs passed it around the perimeter until they had a shot. While they didn’t have many shots, they did find enough to tie the game. Nick Wirth’s three pointer made it 10 – 10 with a minute left in the period.
Jefferson took back the lead in the second period with a wild shot from Josh Pickens under pressure from several Bucs defenders. However, the J-Hawks lead didn’t last long. Jason Fiske found two three pointers to give the Bucs the lead and another two point shot to cement it 18 – 16. Matt Barr took over where Fiske left off, making his next two shots. The Bucs strategy of holding onto the ball limited how much Jefferson could come back, getting only two offensive plays in the last two minutes of the half. While the Bucs could keep all five defenders close to the basket, the Bucs, with their perimeter shooting, kept Jefferson guessing and spread their defense out to cover half the court and more. Nick Wirth, Tyler Pearse and Matt Barr passed it back and forth for the last thirty seconds until – finally – Barr was covered by two Jefferson players. That allowed Wirth to get free and drain a three pointer at the buzzer and give Belvidere a 25 – 18 lead.
The third period started with Jefferson getting more aggressive, trying to get back into the game. However, the Bucs were just as determined to hang on. And despite temptation as their lead fluctuated from as much as eight to as little as three, the Bucs kept to their game plan: hold the ball as much as possible, focus the defense under the basket and not make mistakes. The J-Hawks – on the other hand – committed a number of turnovers and were unable to gather many rebounds. Once Belvidere recovered the ball, they would hold it a minimum of thirty seconds as they passed it back and forth as much as a dozen times before taking a shot with one exception. The J-Hawks took the ball inbound with a minute to go and passed it around the perimeter before making a drive. The Bucs stole the ball away, Matt Barr made a long toss to Jason Fiske waiting unguarded at the other end of the court for a two point shot at the buzzer to end the third period with a 36 – 30 Bucs lead.
The fourth period picked up where the third left off. The Bucs held the ball 45 seconds, passing it around, Jason Fiske found a shot and the Bucs were up by eight. That would be their biggest lead of the night. Belvidere’s shooting went flat and Eppinger started to find some success against Belvidere’s defense. The J-Hawks began to harass the Bucs on their end of the court as they were trying to get the ball inbound. Pickens drained a three point shot to get the J-Hawks within two. The Bucs pulled ahead again with a three pointer of their own from Jason Fiske. Tyler Pearse, who had been an effective decoy earlier in the night, got bottled up by the much taller J-Hawks. With two minutes left in the game, the Bucs were still nursing a four point lead. Matt Barr was fouled and went to the line. He made one of two. Branden Fisher drove it down court in a flash, but Anthony Goransen stole the ball away. Matt Barr was fouled again as he drove to the basket. This time he made both his foul shots. The Bucs had a five point lead. Eppinger went to the line and made his two shorts. While Matt Barr was fouled again on the next series, he only made one of two. Fisher was fouled and he made both his shots. It was a two point game with 47 seconds left. Nick Wirth was fouled after a J-Hawks timeout, but missed both shots. Jefferson grabbed the rebound. Josh Pickens missed the shot, but Pat Nelson grabbed the rebound inside and put it up to tie the game at 49 with 21 seconds left. Worse, the Bucs fouled Nelson and sent him to the line. He missed his free throw, but Robert Eppinger caught the rebound and scored. The J-Hawks had a two point lead with 16 seconds to go. The Bucs took a time out and took it down the court, passing the ball around the perimeter as they had throughout the night. Wirth to Barr, back to Wirth, to Heaton, back to Barr and finally to Jason Fiske who was just outside the three point line, to the left of center. No one was within two steps of him. He set and shot and scored as time expired. The Bucs won 52 – 51. The crowd exploded in a roar and rushed the court to surround the team. It was a long minute before they were able to make it to the line to congratulate the J-Hawks on a game well played and allow Jefferson to quietly escape.
The Bucs go to Boylan high school Friday. The Titans are now tied with Jefferson at the top of the NIC-9. In their first meeting in December, the Titans went on an 8 – 0 run at the beginning of the game and never looked back. Michael Smith’s shooting and Boylan’s free throw shooting helped them glide to an easy 49 – 37 victory over the Bucs. On Saturday, the Bucs return to Belvidere to take on Hononegah. They beat the Indians on the road in December, 47 – 33. Both games begin at 7:00.