By Joe Gisondi
Charleston coach Brad Oakley sat in a chair typing into his cell phone.
Sorry, he said, finishing a text. His phone was lighting up 20 minutes after Friday night’s game.
“I get a lot more texts when we win than when we lose,” he said. “It’s nice to get a win tonight.”
An hour earlier, few people in Baker Gym had expected the Trojans to pull out a wild 53-49 victory over cross-county rival Mattoon.
That the game even came down to a final play was surprising enough given that Charleston trailed by 11 early in the fourth quarter. Plus, Mattoon controlled the boards and the Trojans struggled mightily at the free-throw line.
Even more surprising – that Charleston went on an 11-0 run fueled partly by its previous weaknesses, inside play and free throws.
And how about this? The Trojans fell behind again, by four with three minutes left, only to tie, and then secure, the game by improbably converting eight consecutive free throws.
But, perhaps, even more interesting might be Charleston’s strategy during the final 90 seconds, implemented only when a designed play fortuitously did not work.
In the end, the Trojans pulled out an unlikely come-from-behind win and Mattoon suffered another defeat down the stretch.
There’s a lot to unpack.
But first let’s let coach Oakley finally talk: “We’ve talked about it all year: ‘You’ve got to stay together. There’s going to be bad patches. There’s going to be tough times. You just have to stay together. We were having a hard time putting the ball in the basket. Part of that was Mattoon, part of that was that we just missed shots.”
Mattoon, meanwhile, lost another game in the final minutes, frustrating coach Ryan Ghere who had watched his team lose 73-72 in double-overtime to Pana a few days earlier.
“We just find ways to lose,” Ghere said. “We had them up by 11 in the fourth quarter and we stopped going inside, started shooting 3s and turned the ball over. We’ve got to be more disciplined on defense and get a stop, get a steal and get something to go to overtime. But it’s the fourth or fifth time at the end of a game where we give up a lead and can’t battle back to win. It’s frustrating for me and it’s frustrating for the boys.”
Mattoon had methodically moved ahead of Charleston in the opening three quarters by feeding the ball inside to center Sam Bradbury and converting 13 of 15 free-throws to grind out several shorter runs. The Green Wave took their largest lead, 32-19, about two minutes into the third quarter .
Charleston made a small push that ultimately appeared inconsequential after Isaac Miller and Luke Bell hit consecutive 3-pointers to cut the deficit to 39-34 because Mattoon countered with six points in a row that made it 45-34 about a minute into the fourth quarter.
That’s when Charleston went on its only extended run of the game.
Sam Bickford drove the lane and layed in a basket with 6:27 remaining.
Cade Landrus snagged a loose ball under the hoop and put in another basket about 20 seconds later.
After Mattoon missed a free throw, Landrus responded with a 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it 45-41 with 5:21 remaining, the closest margin since early in the first half.
About 80 seconds later, Bickford grabbed his own blocked shot, took a step toward the basket and put it in, the ninth consecutive point for Charleston.
Caleb Hurst then nailed a 10-foot jumper to tie the score at 45 with 3:48 remaining.
Mattoon finally responded when Bradbury, who had scored 10 points in the first half, layed in his only second-half points, followed by two free throws by CamRon Thomas that put the Green Wave ahead 49-45 with 2:56 left.
But Miller then drove straight into the lane where he was fouled, subsequently making the first two of eight straight free throws for CHS down the stretch. Hurst made two more after he had grabbed a rebound off his own missed 3-pointer to tie the score again, 49-49.
After a timeout, Mattoon turned over the ball on a low pass that bounced off several players before Charleston recovered the ball with 1:25 remaining.
That’s when Oakley designed a few plays for a quick score that inevitably turned into a game of keep away for the next 70 seconds until Mattoon fouled Landrus, who subsequently made two more free throws with 15 seconds remaining to make it 51-49.
Charleston had hoped to free up Miller in the corner for a 3-point attempt. If that did not work, Oakley planned to send Hurst flashing into the high post for a catch-and-shoot or a drive to the basket. Neither materialized so Oakley and his assistants yelled for the team to keep passing the ball around the court. After a timeout with 19 seconds left, Landrus was fouled away from the basket to set up a one-and-one.
“If we had a good quick shot,” Oakley said, “we were going to take it.”
Mattoon could not get off a shot on its final possession, prompting a foul on Bickford with .5 seconds left. He made them both, his eighth and ninth-points of the second half after a frustrating opening two quarters.
“There are a lot of nerves in a game like this,” Bickford said. “But these are the moments we live for. The is what I’ve always wanted to do. This is what I dreamed of doing. Those shots are tough, but you just have to focus and keep a free mind and trust yourself.”
Bickford struggled to contain Bradbury early in the game, giving away three inches and noticeable size to Mattoon’s 6-foot-8 sophomore center. Charleston ultimately adjusted on defense by sending Miller and Hurst to help on the back side, allowing Landrus and Bell to harass Bradbury whenever possible on the front side.
“That’s a tough task covering Bradbury,” Oakley said. “He’s a big kid. And he uses his body well, plus they did a good job getting him the ball. At halftime, I told Sam that I don’t care if gets another rebound, just make sure Bradbury doesn’t get another one either.”
Said Bickford: “All credit to Sam. He’s a very smooth, strong player. But I feel as though I did a better job of keeping my wind in the second half. Just getting up and down the floor to put myself in a better position.”
Ghere said not getting the ball to Bradbury cost them. “We stopped trying to get him the basketball. They did a good job of trying to take him away, but we didn’t do a good job of getting him the ball. We played too much on the perimeter. We didn’t get to the lane.”
Charleston, now 7-8 overall and 1-4 in the Apollo Conference, next plays at Mt. Zion on Tuesday night when Mattoon (5-10, 1-4) plays host to Mahomet-Seymour.
These two teams face off again at Mattoon on Jan. 31.
MATTOON (49): Thomas 3 5-5 11, Morton 1 2-2 4, Middleton 2 0-2 4, Wright 0 2-2 2, Compton 4 4-4 14, Yardley 1 0-0 2, Bradbury 6 0-2 12. Totals 17 17 13-17 49. 3-pointers – Compton 2
CHARLESTON (53): Hurst 5 4-6 17, Harrell 0 1-2 1, Bell 4 0-1 9, Miller 2 2-2 7, Braun 0 0-0 0, Landrus 3 2-2 10, Bickford 3 3-5 9. Totals 17 12-18 53. 3-pointers – Hurst 3, Landrus 2, Bell 1, Miller 1.