BLUFFTON — And then there was one.
Bluffton’s Alivia Koenig calmly sank two free throws with 1.4 seconds left to give the Pirates a thrilling 44-43 win over Spencerville in a key Northwest Conference clash Thursday night.
Coming into the game both teams were undefeated in the NWC and with the victory Bluffton becomes the lone team in the NWC unblemished mark at 5-0 and improve to 1-3 overall. Spencerville slips to 3-1 in the NWC and 10-3 on the season.
“We had a great effort in the fourth quarter,” Bearcat head coach Greg Ekis said. “We continued to work our way back and I was very, very proud of our effort in the fourth quarter.”
With a near capacity crowd, the Bluffton pep band and both teams’ cheerleaders in attendance, the atmosphere was electric from the opening tip and the game lived up to the hype.
“What a great atmosphere,” Pirate head coach Eric Garmatter said. “This was a big win for us.”
In the first quarter, Spencerville looked to take the crowd out of the game and raced out to an quick 8-0 lead at the 5:43 mark of the first period behind two treys from Nelaya Burden. However, Bluffton, behind the shooting of Katie Prater and Avery Rumer sparked a 13-2 run to give Bluffton a 13-10 lead after one quarter.
In the second quarter, Bluffton’s defense helped the Pirates open up a double-digit lead as they neutralized Spencerville’s inside game and keeping a hand in the face of Spencerville’s precision outside shooters.
The Pirates limited the Bearcats to four points in the second quarter and opened up a lead as big as 11 before going into halftime up 23-14.
Neither team manufactured any major runs in the third quarter and the two teams evenly battled and the Pirates opened up an 11-point lead, 34-23 moving into the final eight minutes.
Making some key adjustments and knowing they needed some sort of offensive burst, the Bearcats began to chip away at the lead and behind the scoring of Burden and Emma Leis, Spencerville not only erased the double-digit advantage but when Burden finished off a lay-up she gave the Bearcats its first lead of the game since the first quarter, 41-40 with a little more than a minute remaining in the game.
The two teams exchanged baskets during the next 30 seconds and with 4.5 seconds left, the Bearcats held the slim lead but Bluffton had it on their side of the court and it was up to Koenig to deliver and she did not disappoint and made a strong move towards the basket and the Bearcats were whistled for the foul, putting Koenig at the line for what would turn out to be the game-winning free throws.
Koenig finished the game with a team-high 13 points and Rumer added 10 points. Prater finished with nine.
Coming up big in the fourth quarter for Bluffton was Libby Schaadt who put in two clutch buckets.
For Spencerville, Burden finished with 15 points and Leis chipped in 11 points. Burden and Leis combined for 14 of Spencerville points in the fourth quarter.
“They (Bluffton) did a great job of pressuring us and making our guards do some things we don’t normally do,” Ekis said. “Credit to them in the second half. They made some adjustments and unfortunately we came up one point short.”
Garmatter said defensively it was a tough task but his team came through against a talented Spencerville squad.
“They are good on that team and they have the three-headed monster of Leis and Burden and Davis on the inside and the other two players are good too,” Garmatter said. “But you have to pick your poison and we tried to limit Leis a little bit and we just made enough plays down the stretch.”
Even though Garmatter got a huge win and puts the Pirates in the driver’s seat to capture the conference title, he knows there is still plenty of basketball to be played.
“We still have three games to go,” Garmatter said. “We have Grove next week, Allen East and they have only one loss in the league. It is a juggernaut at the top so we will take them one at a time.”
Reach Jose Nogueras at 567-242-0468.