Basketball is not usually the sport referred to as a game of inches, but one of those inches prevented Oblong High School's boys' basketball team from extending its season Tuesday night.
Oblong battled for four quarters with Effingham St. Anthony in the semifinals of the Class 1A Red Hill Sectional, but when Koert Mehler's 75-foot shot rimmed out at the buzzer, the Panthers saw their season come to an end with a 72-69 defeat.
"The kids played a heck of a ball game," OHS head coach Brent Harper said. "We went down fighting. They kept battling back and closing the gap and we did everything we could to give ourselves a chance to win it."
Oblong - and especially Mehler - asserted itself early and led for most of the opening period. Mehler started off with a three-pointer at the 7:17 mark to open the scoring, then after St. Anthony pulled ahead 8-7 with 3:52 left, Dawson Maus responded with a three-pointer and Mehler added a baseline jumper and a free throw to give Oblong a 13-8 lead, then after a St. Anthony basket, Mehler made a steal in the final seconds and scored just before the buzzer to give the Panthers a 15-10 lead after the first eight minutes.
St. Anthony answered with the first six points of the second quarter to take a 16-15 lead. Mehler hit a jumper from the elbow to put Oblong back on top, 17-16, but he was just getting warmed up, as he scored all 11 OHS points in the second period. The 6-4 senior would convert a three-point play to give Oblong a 20-18 lead with 4:14 to play, then after St. Anthony pulled ahead 23-22, hit a leaner near the free throw line to give the Panthers a 24-23 edge with 2:40 remaining. He would add another hoop after two St. Anthony free throws to make the score 26-25, but St. Anthony scored the final four points of the period to take a 29-26 lead at halftime.
Despite the deficit, the Panthers still appeared to be in good shape, as they hung close even with 6-6 center Jared Mayhew on the bench for most of the first half in foul trouble.
With Mayhew back in to start the third quarter, the Panthers got the ball inside to the big man, but he was unable to get going and would eventually foul out with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Still, the Panthers continued to battle and managed to tie the game at 31-31 near the midpoint of the period and trailed by just one, 34-33, before St. Anthony reeled off eight points to take their biggest lead of the game, 42-33, with 1:40 remaining. Mayhew converted a three-point play to get the deficit down to six, but the Panthers trailed by seven, 45-38, heading into the final period.
That set up a fast-paced and at times frantic fourth quarter, which saw the two teams combine for 58 points.
Oblong closed to within three early in the fourth quarter thanks to six points from Mehler, including a four-point play after he was fouled on a three-pointer from the corner and hit the free throw, making the score 47-44 with 6:41 remaining. St. Anthony countered with six straight points to push their lead back to nine with 5:48 to play, but the Panthers continued to hang around. A fadeaway jumper on the baseline by Maus and a three from Mehler closed the gap to 53-49 with 4:28 left, then after a St. Anthony basket, Mehler added a free throw and another three-pointer to get the Panthers to within 55-53 with 2:45 to go.
The Panthers still trailed by two, 59-57, with less than two minutes to play, when St. Anthony's Andrew Gardewine converted an old-fashioned three-point play to give the Bulldogs a 62-57 lead with 1:38 remaining. Mehler answered with a three-point play of his own with 1:00 on the clock to make the score 62-60, then after Neil Williams made a free throw to give St. Anthony a 63-60 lead, Kyler Fear was fouled on the rebound, but missed both foul shots. Two St. Anthony free throws pushed their lead to five, but Maus banked in a shot from the free throw line to get the Panthers to within three with 43 seconds left. After two more St. Anthony free throws, Alec Jacobs knocked down a three-pointer to make the score 67-65 with 29.5 seconds to play. St. Anthony made two more free throws for a 69-65 lead, but Maus drained a long three-pointer to pull the Panthers to within 69-68 with 14.3 seconds left.
That set up a wild final few seconds that saw the Panthers come up short on several opportunities to tie or take the lead. St. Anthony's Alex Hoelscher made one free throw with 8.7 seconds left, giving the Panthers a chance to tie or take the lead. Zander Laino was left open in the corner, but his three-pointer was long. However, Fear grabbed the rebound and was fouled on his putback attempt with 2.4 seconds left. After a St. Anthony time-out, Fear would miss the first but make the second, closing the gap to 70-69. Williams was immediately fouled and nearly lost the ball out of bounds with 1.7 seconds left. He would hit both free throws to put the Bulldogs up three. Oblong quickly inbounded the ball to Mehler, who launched a shot from almost underneath the opposing basket, which hit the backboard and rolled off the rim as the buzzer sounded, allowing St. Anthony to escape with the win.
"It looked good," Harper said. "You hate to lose, but if you do, that's the way you want to go out. We told the kids they had to show up ready to compete tonight and they did that. We just came up a bit short."
It was a case of deja vu for the Panthers, who had a similar scenario unfold in the same gym two years ago in the Sectional championship game. Oblong trailed by two in the final seconds, when Anthony Johnson launched a shot from half-court - toward the same basket Mehler shot at Tuesday - that would have given the Panthers a win over No. 10 Woodlawn, but was just off the mark.
The free throw line turned out to play a huge factor in the game, as St. Anthony doubled up Oblong at the charity stripe. The Bulldogs made 26-37 free throws (70 percent), including 13-17 in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Panthers made just 13-22 foul shots (59 percent) and were 6-10 in the fourth quarter.
Oblong shot better from the field, as they made 24-49 field goal attempts (49 percent), including 16-29 from two-point range (55 percent) and 8-20 from three-point range (40 percent), while St. Anthony made 22-47 shots from the floor (47 percent), which included a 20-42 effort from inside the arc (48 percent) and a 2-5 performance from long distance (40 percent). However, St. Anthony held a 34-27 rebounding edge, including numerous offensive rebounds that led to second chance opportunities for the Bulldogs.
"Games like this comes down to mistakes and who makes fewer," Harper said. "We weren't boxing out and rebounding early, then we got into foul trouble. They made their free throws down the stretch, while they put us on the line too late and we didn't finish."
The loss put a damper on an otherwise spectacular night for Mehler. In his final game, Mehler finished with 37 points, including 13-18 shooting from the field. He made 9-11 two-pointers and 4-7 three-pointers, along with 7-9 free throws. He scored 21 of Oblong's 26 first-half points, then tossed in another 16 in the fourth quarter. He also collected seven rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot.
"Koert is an exceptional athlete and a hard-working kid," Harper said. "We wanted the ball tonight and wanted to win. He played a heck of a ball game."
Maus posted 13 points and two assists, Mayhew netted seven points, seven rebounds and one blocked shot, Martin Spaeth contributed six points, six assists and five rebounds, Jacobs totaled three points, three rebounds and two assists, Michael Brown added two points, two assists and one blocked shot and Fear added one point, five rebounds and one steal.
Williams led St. Anthony with 22 points, two steals and one rebound, while John Goeckner totaled 16 points, 11 rebounds, one assist and one blocked shot. Hoelscher collected 11 points, 12 rebounds, two steals and two assists and Gardewine added 11 points, one rebound and one assist.
Although the Panthers came up short in their quest for a Sectional title for the third straight year, Harper was proud of what his team accomplished this season.
"We knew if they came out ready to play and battle, they could play with anybody," Harper said. "We had a couple of rough stretches, but they turned things around and the last half of the season has been pretty fun. We didn't have a lot of experience coming back, but our seniors stepped up and became leaders. I'm real happy with the way the season turned out."
With three straight Regional championships under their belt and two starters returning next year, Harper believes the Panthers should be in contention for another title next year.
"We have a good junior class coming back and Dawson did a lot of good things for us as a freshman," Harper said. "I also believe Zander can come in and help us out next year as well. When we start back up, that will be one of our goals to get No. 4."
Oblong ended its season with a 13-18 record. St. Anthony (22-10) advances to the championship game, where they will meet the winner of tonight's semifinal between Dieterich and Patoka on Friday at 7 p.m.