FLORA — You could tell by the packed parking lot outside Carroll High School that something was up Friday night.

Inside, the noise level was high and few, if any, empty seats could be found, as the Cougars and the Lafayette Central Catholic Knights warmed up for their Hoosier Heartland Conference showdown. It was winner-take-all for the conference championship as both teams entered the game 4-0 in league play.

It was a close battle from start to finish, but the host Cougars were handed a disappointing 52-48 loss by the Knights who left with their fourth consecutive HHC title.

“It’s good to get out of here with a victory and the conference title,” Central Catholic coach Dave Barrett said. “That was a hard-fought game. Carroll is a good ball club. They’re very physical, and are tough to handle inside with their size. We needed someone to step up in the fourth quarter and finally Elliot Zak did. This was a great warmup before the sectional.”

Zak became the hero when he hit both ends of a 1-and-1 with :10 to go to score the game’s final points. Carroll got off a last-second 3-point attempt, but even had it gone in the Cougars would have been a point short.

Carroll let numerous opportunities slip through their fingers in the fourth quarter. Kyle Geheb opened the final stanza with a long-range 3-pointer from the right wing to get Carroll within two points at 44-42, then the Cougars wasted that momentum at the free-throw line. Carroll hit just one of 1 of 6 free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter, missing the front ends of two 1-and-1 opportunities.

“Eighteen turnovers and 46 percent free-throw shooting sum it up,” Carroll coach Jeff Hodson said. “If you look at our close losses versus Northwestern, Taylor and [Friday], we shot free throws poorly. We put ourselves in position to win against an awfully good team that has played a tough schedule. We just couldn’t make a play when we needed it.”

The Cougars trailed 50-48 with 2:13 left, but couldn’t come up with a big play. Central Catholic helped the Carroll out with some poor free-throw shooting of its own. The Knights missed four-straight free tosses in the final 2:00 before Zak hit the game clinchers.

Hodson called timeout twice in the final seconds to set up a potential game-winning shot, but both times the Cougars failed to convert.

Carroll played without senior guard and team leader Riley Eller who tore the ACL in his right knee in a game at Delphi on Feb. 6. Eller had been trying to play on the injured knee, but finally decided he couldn’t do it. He started the game since it was senior night, but left the game right after the opening tip. Eller is scheduled for surgery Monday.

Carroll had a great start, putting together a 12-0 run to enjoy its biggest lead of the game at 16-7 with 1:41 left in the first quarter. The Cougars couldn’t hold on to that lead due to the Knights’ pressure defense. The Knights pressed the Cougars full-court the entire game.

“We knew coming in they would apply a lot of pressure,” Hodson said. “Our guards, Noah [Allen], [Primmer] Zook and Geheb ought to be tired. It was good for our kids to see that they can play hard for 32 minutes. This should prepare us well for the sectional.”

Adam Spesard led 16-4 Carroll with 15 points and seven rebounds. Allen was the only other Cougar in double figures will 11.

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