Tuesday night’s boys’ basketball game had all the attributes of a showdown between two undefeated teams in their conference.
There were steady runs by both teams, hard-fought possessions and several shots each team would like to recover.
Ultimately, however, Larkin escaped East Aurora by amplifying one of the oldest – but undeniable – clichés in the sport: the game is truly won – and lost on many other occasions – on the free throw line. .
Larkin used a dominant run to close the third quarter and converted 14 of 16 foul line shots in the fourth to secure a 65-58 Upstate Eight Conference victory over the Tomcats in Aurora.
“Our coach told us if we hit our free throws we would win the game,” said Larkin main goaltender Damari Wheeler-Thomas, who recorded a high of 21 points and 11 rebounds.
The North Dakota State rookie used up his 6 free throws in the fourth quarter as Larkin had to fight the Tomcats twice, reducing the contest to a game to a possession in the final 43 seconds.
“He’s the Division I goalie who plays high school basketball,” Larkin coach Deryn Carter said of Wheeler-Thomas.
But Larkin (15-1), coming off a vacation championship at Jacobs, would never have secured his sixth straight league victory with supporting performances from Jakob Blakely and Fernando Perez.
The Royals duo scored 17 points apiece.
“No disrespect for anyone who comes here, but I knew (the Tomcats) were going to play really hard against us,” Carter said. “The league is a little heavy right now so it was a very important game. These guys (from East Aurora) are playing so hard.”
East Aurora won their first eight games of the season, only to suffer three straight losses in their holiday tournament last week.
The Tomcats (8-4, 4-1) fell behind as soon as Wheeler-Thomas started an 8-0 run to open the game.
The Tomcats, behind Jullian Acosta and Nate Robinson as well as reserve twin Nate Robinson and Stephen Dorsey, rallied with a 16-6 run in the quarterfinals.
Both teams squandered seemingly easy chances in the second quarter as the Tomcats retained a 28-24 advantage in intermission.
Acosta then opened the third with five straight points to give the Tomcats a 33-24 lead, the biggest for either team that night.
But the Royals returned the favor with the game-changing blitz of the night.
Twenty-five points later, Larkin nearly monopolized the combined score with 21 points.
As a result, the Royals had a 45-37 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Wheeler-Thomas, in just seconds, made a transition field goal and stole the pass for another quick tie.
Blakely and Perez then added field goals to give Larkin the cushion not only to never give up, but also a gap needed to survive one final East Aurora run.
“We focused on the rebound,” Wheeler-Thomas said of a key to the season. “My confidence is probably the highest it has ever been, on both sides of the pitch. I knew they were going to sue us.”
East Aurora’s expected final wave certainly came to fruition as the Tomcats scored seven straight points on second-chance rebounds spanning two possessions as Savage drained a long 3-point to complete a 5-point possession.
But Perez tied Wheeler-Thomas’ six free throws in the fourth quarter to keep the Tomcats at bay.
Adrian York scored 7 points for the Royals, meaning their top four players counted for all but one of the 65 points.
Acosta finished with 17 points and Savage added 12 for East Aurora.
“We’ve never been out of the game,” East Aurora coach Ricky Robinson said. “When it came time for a crucial basket, we didn’t finish it. We were there (in the decisive third quarter run for the Royals) and then they just took off.”