The term “free throws” is a misnomer.
There’s nothing free about them. They’re not a given.
Take Ligonier Valley’s WPIAL Class 3A Section 3 makeup home game Saturday against Apollo-Ridge. The Rams were 12 of 23 from the line.
But it wasn’t so much the number of free throws that the Rams missed as it was when they did. And that gets even more magnified when the game goes into double overtime.
Ligonier Valley and Apollo-Ridge exchanged the lead 15 times, including six in the first quarter. The biggest leads were eight by one team and six the other.
However, it was the Rams who had chances to win the game — not once, but — twice. But they missed the front ends of a pair of one-and-ones — and two other foul shots — in the fourth quarter, and then four more free throws in the second overtime in a 78-76 setback to Apollo-Ridge.
“Yep, that’ll do it,” acknowledged Ligonier Valley head coach Tim Gustin.
“They made theirs when they needed to, and we didn’t. That changes everything.”
One thing Ligonier Valley (3-6, 3-9) is doing is making up a lot of ground on some of the top teams in the section...maybe not in the standings, but in the scorebook.
Last Friday, the Rams lost by 15 at second-place South Allegheny (8-1, 11-3), 62-47, after they were tied midway through the third quarter. It was 34 when they played at Ligonier Valley four and a half weeks ago.
When Ligonier Valley and third-place Apollo-Ridge (5-3, 7-3) played on Feb. 12, the Vikings won by 18 points, 67-49. This time, it was two...and in double overtime.
“This was a fun game,” Gustin allowed. “This is why I coach, and I think the reason the kids play, is to be in games like this. It was back and forth.
“The kids are playing hard. We just came out on the wrong end.”
Because of all of the games that have had to be rescheduled with the weather and coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Ligonier Valley was playing for the fourth time in five days. Saturday also marked the Rams’ second game against Apollo-Ridge in nine days.
They lost thee of those four games, two in the section. But Gustin sees his team making progress.
“We’re only like five and a half weeks in with some of these kids,” Gustin noted, referring to a lengthy delay in the start of the season for the Rams because of the virus. “We’re learning and getting better as a group.
“They’re starting to understand what I want from them, and doing it much better than we were a the beginning of the season. The good news is, we’re starting to peak right now.”
But, in addition to the free throws, Gustin is also concerned about the frequency that Ligonier Valley’s opponents seem to be making three-pointers. Apollo-Ridge had 12 against the Rams with eight of those coming in the first half.
“I don’t know what it is about us,” Gustin conceded. “I have to check the video and see why we’re giving up so many threes. We seem to do that against everybody.”
Yet, Ligonier Valley could’ve salted this one away in the final seconds of the fourth quarter up one, 56-55. But the Rams missed the front ends of two one-and-ones, leaving a potential four points at the line.
Following an Ligonier Valley timeout at :20.6, 6-foot-2 junior guard Matthew Marinchak — who dropped 32 on Apollo-Ridge — was unable to hit the front end of the bonus. But the Rams got the rebound only to have 6-foot-3 junior forward Miles Higgins miss, as well, and the Vikings called time with :17.6 seconds left.
Apollo-Ridge senior guard Keighton Reese couldn’t get a three-point attempt to go down — he had four up to that point — but the ball went off of a Ligonier Valley player and out of bounds. Again, the Vikings called a timeout with 5.6 seconds to play.
Apollo-Ridge then had senior guard Jake Fello drive to the basket, where he was fouled. Fellow converted the first free throw, but not the second, which was rebounded by Ligonier Valley 6-foot-3 senior forward Isaac Neidbalson, with the final 1.8 seconds coming off the clock in regulation.
The Rams scored first in overtime when Marinchak came down with a rebound and took it the length of the court, but 6-foot-4 senior forward Klay Fitzroy — he led the Vikings with 25 points — made a three and then drove in for two more to put Apollo-Ridge in front, 61-58. After a Ligonier Valley turnover, Marinchak blocked an Apollo-Ridge three-point try and eventually scored the game’s next two field goals to give the Rams the lead back at 62-61.
Following turnovers by both teams, Ligonier Valley called time with 24.5 seconds left in the first overtime, and Marinchak — with the Rams now in the double-bonus — knocked down both free throws for a 64-61 edge. Fello then scored for the Vikings on another drive, and Apollo-Ridge got an immediate timeout with :13.5 to go.
On this trip down the floor, Ligonier Valley’s Hollick was fouled, and he also bottomed out both free throws to make it a three-point game again, 64-61, with 9.5 seconds to play. But, with three seconds left, Fitzroy drained his second trey of the extra period, sending the game into a second overtime deadlocked at 66.
“If guys are making shots like that, especially in overtime, then they can do it just about anytime,” Gustin offered.
Apollo-Ridge then accounted for the first six points of the second overtime, and Ligonier Valley never led again. Neidbalson and Hollick did hit threes of their own in the second overtime, the last with six seconds left, but Apollo-Ridge’s Fitzroy made one of two foul shots, and a deep three-point attempt from the left wing by Marinchak caromed off the back of the rim as time expired.
“They definitely earned it.,” Gustin said of the Vikings. “We just got to find a way to get over that hump and get some wins, and hopefully it continues from there.”
Ligonier Valley was ahead by one after the first quarter, 17-16, but, for the time being, couldn’t overcome eight threes by Apollo-Ridge in the first half — four in each quarter — even though Marinchak did his best to match that. He alone had three treys in the first half, and his two to end the second quarter, the last at the buzzer, cut the Vikings’ lead to 35-33 at the break.
The Rams forged into the lead at 42-41 when a Neidbalson steal led to a bucket by Hollick, and five straight points from Marinchak — three at the line and a pull-up jumper — gave them their biggest advantage at 47-41. The third quarter ended with Ligonier Valley up by two, 47-43.
Ligonier Valley regained a five-point margin, 50-45, on a three-point play by Marinchak, but Apollo-Ridge worked it way back into the lead at 52-50 on a three from Reese. However, Marinchak and Neidbalson combined for the subsequent six points for the Rams.
After a basket by Marinchak, he fed a cutting Neidbalson with a bounce-pass along the baseline. Neidbalson then scored on a putback with 1:25 to play in the fourth quarter, and it was 56-52 in favor of Ligonier Valley. Twenty seconds later, a three-point play by A-R’s Reese set up the end of regulation and the two overtimes.
“There are a lot of little things throughout a game that we just got to clean up,” Gustin added. “But we’ve come a long way.”
Both teams had three players in double figures in scoring. Following the 32 points from Marinchak were Neidbalson with 21, and Hollick 13 for the Rams while those three for the Vikings — Fitzroy (25), Fello (23) and Reese (23) — had 71 of the 78.
In Ligonier Valley’s four games last week, Marinchak totaled 97 points. He now has 871 for his career as he looks to someday join the 12-player 1,000-point club that currently includes Marrek Paola, Michael Marinchak, Jordan Jones, Adam Stinogle, Jeff Riffle, Chris Loughner, Alex Breitsman, Bob Stalnaker, Chris Gessner, Kris Krieger, Scott Moffett and Rick McLeary.
“I think we’re turning the corner,” Gustin concluded. “Hopefully we’ll have a good week (this) week and be ready for the playoffs.”
Ligonier Valley is scheduled to host Steel Valley in a section matchup, 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, but that game could get canceled. Steel Valley has been in an extended pause because of COVID-19 and has played only once to date. On Wednesday, the Rams will make the short trip to Class 5A Greater Latrobe (6-5) for a 7:30 p.m. exhibition contest.
Ligonier Valley’s section game last Friday at South Allegheny was close for two and a half quarters. After trailing by six at halftime, 31-25, the Rams tied it midway through the third quarter before the Gladiators pulled away.
“We got blown out the first time with South Allegheny,” Gustin noted. “It wasn’t even close.”
Once again, Marinchak led Ligonier Valley with 17 points while Hollick had nine. For South Allegheny, sophomore guard Bryce Epps and senior guard Antonio Epps had 26 and 15, respectively, and seven of the team’s eight threes.
Fello 9-2-23; Reiter 1-2-5; Reese 9-1-23; Fitzroy 9-3-25; Johnston 1-0-2; Mull 0-0-0; K Schrock 0-0-0. Totals, 29-8(15)—78
LIGONIER VALLEY (76)
Marinchak 10-9-32; Hollick 5-2-13; Neidbalson 9-1-21; Higgins 2-0-4; Rhoades 2-0-4; Kondisko 1-0-2. Totals, 29-12(23)—76
Score by Quarters
A-R 16 19 8 13 10 12 — 78 LV 17 16 14 9 10 10 — 76 Three-point field goals: Marinchak-3, Neidbalson-2, Hollick; Fitzroy-4, Reese-4, Fello-3, Reiter ———
LIGONIER VALLEY (47)
Marinchak 6-1-17; Hollick 4-0-9; Neidbalson 3-0-6; Higgins 2-0-4; Rhoades 1-2-5; Smykal 2-0-6; Kondisko 0-0-0; Little 0-0-0; Grzywinski 0-0-0. Totals, 18-3(10)—47
SO. ALLEGHENY (62)
Kirkwood 1-2-5; Hines 0-0-0; B Epps 10-2-26; A Epps 6-0-15; Faulkner 6-0-12; Diglorio 0-0-0; Sloss 2-0-4; Rudberg 0-0-0; Carter 0-0-0. Totals, 25-4(7)—62
Score by Quarters
Lig. Valley 10 15 10 12 — 47 So. Allegheny 19 12 15 16 — 62
Three-point field goals: Marinchak-4, Smykal-2, Hollick, Rhoades; B. Epps-4, A. Epps-3, Kirkwood