By MARK SALUKE
RUSSIAVILLE — In a close contest where the margin for error was razor-thin, a great night at the charity stripe pushed Western past visiting Lafayette Jeff, 60-52, in Tuesday’s boys basketball action at Richard R. Rea Gymnasium.
The Bronchos hit all six of their free throw attempts on the night, a stat that paled in comparison to the 19-of-22 clip the Panthers shot from the line.
“Free throws, without a doubt, were huge,” Western coach Bart Miller said. “We were able to get to the line and hit down the stretch, and we only missed one free throw in the fourth quarter. That was big.”
Western (11-7) netted 9 of 10 freebies in the final eight minutes, including 7 of 8 in the final minute when the Panthers pulled away from a one-point, 53-52 edge to secure the eight-point win.
“We didn’t make enough plays to win, that’s the bottom line,” said Jeff coach Scott Radeker, whose Bronchos were missing leading scorer and rebounder Tyler Buchanan. “We just didn’t handle situations well at the end of the game.”
Jeff (7-12), which committed just four miscues the entire game, turned the ball over twice while missing a pair of shots in its final four possessions. The Panthers turned each of those missed opportunities into points at the free throw line.
“We took a 3 when we were down by one, so the shot selection was a little disappointing,” Radeker said. “That’s stuff we work on every day in practice, a minute to go or 40 seconds to go and down by three, but in the end it just didn’t go our way.”
In a game of 20 lead changes and four ties, the final swing went Western’s way when Des Balentine knocked down back-to-back shots with a deuce and a triple to turn a 45-44 deficit into a 49-45 advantage with 4:30 to play.
Balentine, a quiet 1 of 7 from the field over the first three quarters, scored 10 of his team-high 15 points in the final frame. He knocked down 3 of 4 free-throws in the fourth quarter while junior guard Evan Warden was 4 of 4 from behind the stripe.
“In the fourth quarter, when the game is on the line, it’s nice to have guys like Des and Evan to close out a game,” Miller said. “This was an all-around great team victory. We had a real balanced attack [Tuesday] night, with five guys in double figures.”
Ronnie Smith finished with 13 points, while Warden and Austin Weaver each scored 11. Austin Townsend had 10 points to go with a team-high nine boards.
Smith scored 12 of his 13 points in the first half, while all of Weaver’s came in the first 16 minutes as the teams battled to a 26-all tie at the half. Smith and Weaver were the only Panthers to connect from the field in the first half, as the duo shot 10 of 13 from the field while the rest of the team was 0 of 9.
“Ronnie’s play in the first half was big for us,” Miller said. “We had a size advantage underneath and that opened up the outside for us. Jeff did a good job of getting out on our guards early, so Weaver coming off the bench and knocking down those shots was big as well.”
Western held a 12-11 edge after the first eight minutes. Weaver’s boost off the bench accounted for five straight points in the quarter. In the half, Weaver shot 4 of 5, including 3 of 4 from downtown.
After a thrilling first-half of 13 lead changes and three ties, Western seemed poised to put the game away when an 11-4 run to open the second half put the Panthers ahead 37-30 at 4:37 in the third quarter. But the Bronchos battled back, countering with an 11-3 run to close out the quarter and go up by a point, 41-40, heading into the final eight minutes of action.
While Western’s largest lead was the seven-point third quarter advantage, Jeff’s biggest lead was four, 18-14, on a Peter Ripke triple in the second quarter. Ripke paced the Bronchos with 15 points and eight rebounds, while Darian Collins chipped in 11.
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