By Denise Tucker (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
With .8 seconds left and the game tied at 55, Austin Valdez stepped to the free-throw line and calmly drained the first of two shots to give Verona a 56-55 lead over New Covenant Academy on Friday night. He then intentionally missed the second to run out the clock and the Wildcats put a damper on the Warriors’ Homecoming night with a 56-55 non-conference victory.
“I had a lot of confidence in myself because of how much time we spend shooting free throws at practice,” Valdez said. “We needed this. We needed a game that was close, back and forth and to be able to pull it off like this.”
To that point in the game, Valdez had scored one point – on a free throw in the third quarter. But, when he was fouled with .8 seconds to go, his coach, Brad Stewart, said there was no doubt he was going to make it.
“Yes, because of the way he and his team celebrated when they found out he was fouled,” Stewart said. “That gave him confidence, and I could tell he wanted to be there. Sometimes, you can look and you’re not sure if they want to be there – he wanted to be there.”
By the looks of the first quarter, it appeared as though Verona was going to make quick work of New Covenant. The Wildcats’ defensive pressure, combined with several missed shots by New Covenant, limited what the Warriors could do as Verona jumped out to a 19-8 first-quarter lead.
Verona extended its lead to 14 points in the second quarter, but once the Wildcats backed off their press because of foul trouble, New Covenant was able to put the Homecoming festivities behind it, settle in and get back in the game. The Warriors held Verona scoreless over that final 3 or 4 minutes of the half and used an 8-0 run to close out the quarter and pull within six points (31-25) going into halftime.
“We’ve had a little bit of a tendency, unfortunately, to do that… to almost put people away,” Stewart said. “But, almost isn’t good enough. I knew they were a good team, and I thought they would make a run.”
Which New Covenant did, as it turned that 8-0 run into a 12-0 run by opening the third quarter with a basket by Logan Jackson and a putback by Brennan Williams to pull the Warriors within two points (31-29).
Caleb Hillhouse got Verona on the board in the third with a 3-pointer from the baseline for a 34-29 lead. But the baskets started to fall for New Covenant, which outscored Verona 7-1 to take its first lead (36-35) since early in the first quarter. Baskets by Tim Smith and Williams extended the Warriors’ lead to five (40-35) and it was back and forth with the teams tied at 44 heading into the final quarter.
Hillhouse wasted little time getting things started for Verona, hitting another baseline 3 to put the Wildcats up 47-44. But, Smith converted on a traditional 3-point play to tie it back up (47-47), and hit another bucket for a 49-47 New Covenant lead.
Both teams struggled with fouls and turnovers in the fourth, which included Kolton Pinkly drawing a charge to spark the Wildcats, who went on a 5-0 run for a 55-51 advantage with 2:37 to go in the game.
“I said, ‘What got this run started,’” Stewart said he asked his team, “and they said, ‘defense.’ (Pinkly) taking that charge got it started. We had to get better rim-protecting; they were attacking us and somebody had to stop them, and he did. I thought that was a huge play for us.”
But, New Covenant wasn’t finished. The Warriors got two free throws from Trey Stutzman and a basket from Smith that circled the rim before finally falling, knotting the game up again (55-55).
Empty possessions by both teams kept the game tied. And, after a held ball with 20 seconds to go, the Warriors worked some clock and called time out with 10.5 seconds left. But, they turned the ball over coming out of the timeout, and fouled Valdez at the other end of the floor, sending him to the line.
Hillhouse led Verona, which improved to 17-4, with 20 points and Pinkly added 10 for the Wildcats.
“It was a team effort,” Stewart said. “Obviously, it took all of them. It was a great ballgame all night long, and Austin finished it off. It was a big win for us.”
New Covenant’s first-year coach Ryan Worley was proud of his team for not giving up after Verona jumped out to its quick lead.
“These guys battled back and they fought back, which I’m very proud of, and made it a game,” Worley said of his Warriors. “They put themselves in an opportunity, which is all you want in a game, to have an opportunity to win it or to be in a spot that we’re going to learn from.
“That’s the most important thing, is that we come away from this knowing, ‘OK, we’ve got to be ready to come out to play against good teams’ – and, Verona is a very good team – and we just learn from what we did at the end.
“Hopefully, we get an opportunity to be in another valuable game that’s close like that later and we’ll have a little bit better experience.”
Smith led all scorers with 27 points for New Covenant, which fell to 14-4 overall.
VERONA 56, NEW COVENANT ACADEMY 55
NEW COVENANT ACADEMY 8-17-19-11—55
VERONA (17-4) – Jaiden Carrasquillo 9, Eddie Gutierrez 9, Anthony Martinez 6, Kolton Pinkly 10, Caleb Hillhouse 20, Austin Valdez 2.
NEW COVENANT ACADEMY (14-4) – Garrett Simmerman 10, Logan Jackson 2, Brennan Williams 6, Tim Smith 27, Cameron Altena 2, Trey Stutzman 4, Jonathan Dille 4.
Verona B 61, New Covenant Academy B 54 (OT)