Championship teams find ways to win when the game is on the line.
After going 8-0 during the regular season, the Muskie senior boys’ basketball team survived a huge scare in the NorWOSSA final last Thursday in Dryden against the third-place Eagles (1-7) before eventually earning a 48-44 victory and the gold medal.
Fort High appeared to be the beneficiaries of some good fortune earlier in the day when the Eagles upset the second-place Kenora Broncos (3-5) in the semi-final.
However, a combination of poor shooting and some surprisingly tough Eagle defence slowed the normally potent Muskie offence to a near crawl.
In fact, had it not been for some clutch free-throw shooting in the game’s final minutes, it could well have been the Eagles celebrating a NorWOSSA championship.
“We didn’t execute well on offence,” head coach Paul Noonan said afterwards. “We had lots of good looks but they just weren’t dropping for us.
“Guys like Jeremy Strain, who can normally put down 18 or 20 points in a game, came up with six or eight and that’s not enough output,” he stressed.
But while Noonan bemoaned his team’s poor shooting performance, he was quick to praise the Eagles for their strong showing at both ends of the court.
“I give full credit to Dryden for hustling and bringing the ball down,” he remarked. “They scored better today then they had all year against us.
“We tried to change up the defence a little bit to throw them off but in some ways, I think it worked to their advantage.
“They were very tenacious on defence and they didn’t give us the easy looks that we’re sort of used to getting,” Noonan added.
“If you look at an average game, Morgan Anderson would get six or eight wide open looks and they weren’t giving any of those away today [Thursday].”
The game opened in familiar fashion for the Muskies as they worked the ball into the post for an early bucket. But Dryden quickly responded with some accurate long-range shooting of their own.
The Eagles then forced some turnovers courtesy of their pressure defence, which resulted in easy buckets, and any thought of an easy game for the black-and-gold quickly evaporated.
The Muskies held a slim 12-11 lead after one quarter of play.
Fort High’s shooting woes manifested themselves early in the second quarter as normally reliable Anderson struggled to find his scoring touch.
The misses, combined with several Muskie turnovers, allowed the Eagles to build a five-point lead—17-12—midway through the frame.
The home side later extended their lead to nine points before Muskie guard Joey Theriault scored five unanswered points to cut the lead to 23-19 heading at the break.
The third quarter continued what was now a game-long trend as the Muskies struggled to get open looks and hit their shots.
With the outside shots refusing to fall, the Muskie guards began feeding the ball into the post, where interior players Strain and Travis Stromness began to exert themselves offensively.
“We were giving away the ball a little bit but in the second half, we came back and we started making some smart passes,” Stromness said after the game.
“We started getting the ball inside and scoring some baskets.”
Despite the improving success at the offensive end, the Muskies still found themselves trailing by a bucket—31-29—heading into the final quarter.
The game went back-and-forth early in the fourth until baskets by Theriault and Stromness gave the Muskies a 44-41 lead with just over a minute to go.
Then with time quickly draining off the clock and their shots not falling, the Eagles were forced to foul and hope the Muskies missed their free throws.
However, Garnet Cornell and Stromness each hit their free-throw attempts on successive possessions to give the Muskies a 48-41 lead.
The Eagles hit a three-pointer as time expired but it was too little, too late as the Muskies took the hard-fought victory.
“We didn’t allow too many points at the end of the game,” Noonan said of his team’s keys to victory. “We stayed back in our zone and let them come to us.
“They threw up some long shots that didn’t go in and we got the rebounds.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t come back and capitalize on it on offence,” he added. “Our points were hard-fought, every one of them. But eventually we started making some foul shots and the lead grew from one to three to five.
“All we really had to do was keep our composure.”
The Muskies now advance to the NWOSSAA playoffs this weekend (Feb. 23-25) in Thunder Bay, where they’ll hope to regain their shooting touch as they vie for a berth at the all-Ontarios.