BOONE — With 2:47 left in the game on Friday, Jan. 17, and up 65-59, Watauga boys’ basketball could almost taste a major Northwest Conference victory over the visiting Freedom Patriots.
In the next 75 seconds of game time, Freedom (15-1, 4-1 Northwestern Conference) used back court steals and its fast-paced offense to go on a 9-0 run, spurring a 71-67 win over the host Pioneers (6-8, 3-3 Northwestern Conference) at a lively and packed Lentz-Eggers Gymnasium.
“I really thought everybody who played did their job; that’s why we were in the position we were late to win this game,” Watauga coach Laura Barry said after the game. “You saw our legs go a little bit late, the pressure bothered us full court.”
For a Watauga team without Anderson Castle, Holden Perry led the Pioneers with 18 points, all in the second half. Jake Sears made a comfortable living downtown with 15 total points, all on 3-pointers, as did Jackson Earnhardt whose 12 points were all on threes as well. Andrew Freeman chipped in eight points, all in the first half.
“Holden (Perry) was big, especially with Jaiden (Bond) in some foul trouble,” Barry said. “(Perry’s) taken the ball to the rim in practice and done a real good job at that. Ironically, he’s one of our best defensive players, he guarded Freeman most of the night.”
Freedom got a huge night from Bradley Davis, who finished with 26 to lead all scorers. James Freeman scored 20 points of his own, half coming from foul shots, and Que Garner added 11 points.
One major difference in the game was getting to the foul line. Freedom’s aggressive and fast-paced offense got them to the line often, where they went 17 of 28, with Freeman alone going 10 of 19. Watauga, who shot more from the perimeter, went 6 of 7 in the game from the line.
The ending exemplified a game in which neither team could build up a big lead. Watauga’s six-point lead with 2:47 left was the largest either team had in the second half, after Freedom briefly held a 38-30 advantage late in the first half. There were 17 lead changes in the contest.
After Freedom led most of the opening quarter, Watauga managed to take a 14-11 lead after one with a Tyler Ward hoop, two of his six total points, all in the first quarter, late in the frame. The lead lasted until Davis, who had 15 points in the second quarter, pushed the Patriots out in front. The lead grew to as many as eight before Earnhardt’s three with 40 seconds left in the first half made the deficit 38-33 at the break.
The third quarter saw four lead changes at various points as Watauga went through a 4:15 scoring drought, but limited the Patriots offensively to keep the game close. An old-fashioned three-point play by Perry with 15 seconds left in the third cut the Freedom lead to 48-47 going into the fourth.
The first six baskets of the fourth quarter resulted in lead changes as the two teams struggled to find the upper hand. An Earnhardt three-pointer with just over five minutes left gave Watauga a 58-55 lead and after a Freedom bucket, Perry added an and-one three-point play to make it a 61-57 lead with 4:37 left.
Freeman missed the free throw of his and-one attempt with 4:29 left, then missed a wide-open fast-break layup after stealing the lead, which led to Perry scoring two free throws and a layup to push the Watauga lead to 65-59 with 2:47 left.
“I’m proud of our defense, making stops when we did and go on that run late,” Barry said.
After making a free throw with 2:34 left to cut the deficit to five, the Patriots stole the ball twice in just a few seconds and before any of the capacity crowd could look up, the lead was only two points. Then as the two-minute mark hit, Freedom’s Ben Tolbert hit a three-pointer, his only points of the game, to make it a 66-65 Patriots’ lead.
Bond fouled out with 1:32 left, leading to two Freedom free throws by James Freeman and a 68-65 lead. But Holden Perry scored two of his 15 fourth-quarter points with a minute left to cut the deficit to one point. Freeman then went one of two from the charity stripe, giving Watauga a shot to tie or take the lead. Perry had the first look on a drive with approximately 20 seconds left, but it rimmed out, as did the follow-up by Jackson Earnhardt.
After quickly fouling Davis with 15 seconds left, the Freedom guard calmly hit both free throws. Anticipating a Pioneers’ perimeter pass, Freeman stole the ball as Watauga tried to get a shot off with seconds left and went to the hoop as time expired.
Barry, who was disappointed with the team’s effort in a 57-33 loss at Hickory on Jan. 14, complimented her team on stepping up and wants more consistency out of them going forward.
“This team has got to move forward and look forward and not be who we’ve been in the past,” Barry said. “The effort we gave tonight is completely repeatable, and it’s just about being consistent with our effort and focus.”
The next chance for a repeat effort comes in non-conference action Wednesday, Jan. 22, at home versus East Surry.