Every area boys basketball team had its share of tight games and exciting finishes this season, but none had more toss-ups than Lincoln.
The Alices played 12 of their 25 games within six points or overtime, and North Knox was next with eight such games. Lincoln even had a thrilling buzzer beater to upset then-2A No. 5 Evansville Mater Dei, the first win over a ranked foe for first-year coach Jordan Myers. But while the Alices may have the most candidates for the top-five games of the past season, none of them took the No. 1 spot for the area's best game.
While it's difficult to top a buzzer-beating winner, a last-second 3-pointer in a rivalry game with major point swings did just that. Here are the top five games for 2019-20.
1. Lawrenceville 60, Red Hill 59 — The Lawrence County rivals play a home-and-home series every season, and with the Capital Classic and Little Illini Conference tournaments, there's potential each year for four meetings. The Indians and Salukis didn't meet in either tournament this season, so after Lawrenceville cruised in a 57-35 home win in December, Red Hill was a heavy underdog when the rivals reconvened in Bridgeport Feb. 11.
But recent outcomes don't account for much in rivalry games.
This chapter saw seven lead changes and huge momentum swings. A 9-0 Indians run to close the first period put them in front, 13-12, and the Salukis put together 11 straight points in building a 28-23 halftime advantage. It was an 11-2 Lawrenceville run in the third that gave the Indians a 37-34 edge going into the fourth, and they appeared to be in control late with a 49-41 spread.
Red Hill dazzled the home crowd by miraculously putting together a string of five consecutive three-point possessions, with Drake Allen twice, Anthony Jerrell and Josh Henry making 3-pointers, and Camren Ray swiping a steal and finishing off a three-point play. Allen made two free ones to give the Salukis a 58-54 lead before Brenyn Winningham had his own three-point play to get the gap to one.
After Ray hit just 1-of-2 from the foul line with 40 seconds left, Lawrenceville ran down the clock before Logan Williams buried what proved to be the game-winner, a 3-pointer with 10 seconds remaining. Following a Red Hill timeout, Ray drove the length of the floor, but his layup was off the mark as the Indians secured the rebound to seal it.
Seven players reached double figures in the game. For Lawrenceville, Blayne Winningham scored 16, Brenyn Winningham and Ethan Kelly 13, and Noah Weger 10. For the Salukis, Allen had a career-best 24, Ray 13 and Henry 11. Williams' winning shot gave him his only points in the contest.
2. Lincoln 54, Evansville Mater Dei 53 — On Jan. 18 the Alices were clearly the better team for three quarters against 3A honorable mention Sullivan, but the Golden Arrows took advantage of a lengthy Lincoln dry spell in the final stanza, and though the Alices rallied to force overtime, Sullivan controlled the extra period in a 73-62 win.
Just three days later, another second-half drought threatened to end another Alices upset bid. Unlike the contest against Sullivan, Lincoln trailed by as many as eight in the first half against Mater Dei before pulling even, 27-27, at halftime.
Ethan Bushey started the third quarter with a 3-pointer for Lincoln's first lead, and the Alices went up by as much as 39-32 before Mater Dei put together a 10-2 spurt, and it was back-and-forth the rest of the way. The fourth quarter had nine lead changes, with neither team going up by more than three.
Bushey's free throws put Lincoln ahead, 52-51, with 30 seconds to play, but an unfortunate foul on the other end allowed the Wildcats go back in front at the foul line with 11.4 seconds showing. The Alices regained the fortune on their next possession, however, when Mater Dei was a called for a kicked ball with 3.3 ticks left as Lincoln was scrambling for a final shot.
After both teams called timeouts to set up the final possession, Gillis got the inbounds pass at the top of the key, drove straight to the hoop, and his layup hit the rim twice before falling through as time expired. Gillis paced the offense with 12 points and seven assists, while Ethan Bushey led the scoring with 18, and Julius Hardiman tallied 11.
3. South Knox 36, North Knox 32 — The Spartans entered the early-December meeting having won eight straight in the county rivalry, but the Warriors refused to make it easy for South Knox.
North Knox never took the lead, but Spartans never had a bigger advantage than six. It was 17-11 late in the first half when Isaiah Collins made a 3-pointer to cut the Warriors' deficit in half, and South Knox pushed it back to 18-14 at intermission. The Spartans' lead was 24-19 through three, but Holtman Doades' managed a four-point play with 7:17 showing to get North Knox with 24-23. It never got any tighter, but a three-point play by Brayden Thorne with 19 seconds to go brought the Warriors within one again, 33-32.
Garrett Holscher gave North Knox hope by netting just 1-of-2 free throws, and the Warriors called a timeout with nine seconds left to set up their chance to tie or take the lead. But Holscher made up for his miss by swiping a steal to thwart North Knox, and he put in both free throws this time with four seconds remaining to extend the lead safely to four.
Justin Fickling had 15 points for South Knox and Holscher 11. Doades led North Knox with 16 points.
Though the Warriors came up short, they proved they were a much-improved team from the 2018-19 squad that went 3-20, and they ultimately reached 10 wins for the first time since 2014-15.
4. Rivet 55, Wood Memorial 53, OT — It was far from a banner season for the Patriots, but they had a stretch of eight games in January and February where they played tight with some good teams and even managed to snag a few wins. That stretch was highlighted by the Feb. 6 contest with the Trojans.
The first half with Wood Memorial was tight with the Trojans taking quarter stop leads of 15-11 and 24-21. But Wood started to creep away in the third going up double figures before settling for a 41-32 margin to begin the fourth.
Rivet's defense did the trick in the fourth quarter, limiting the Trojans to five points in the stanza, and Austin Finch scored seven points in the period. Finch hit two free throws with :29 showing to finally pull Rivet even, 46-46.
After Wood scored the first bucket in the extra period, Tre'von Taylor tied it for the Patriots, and Charlie Niehaus buried a 3-pointer to give Rivet the lead for good, 51-48. The Patriots failed to put away the Trojans at the foul line, going just 3-of-13 in the overtime, but the defense held, and Taylor and Niehaus each hit a free one in the final minute to hold off Wood.
Taylor managed 27 points in the win, two shy of his career high, and Finch finished with 14 points. Rivet followed up the win over the Trojans by knocking off Bloomington Lighthouse four days later, the Patriots only consecutive wins on the year.
5. (tie) Lincoln 65, Washington 61; Washington 72, Lincoln 66, OT — Recognized by some as the state's oldest rivalry, the Alices and Hatchets added two more epic chapters to their storied history this season.
With Washington carrying a five-game winning streak and a 3A honorable mention ranking into Alice Arena in early February, not many gave Lincoln much chance of pulling an upset. But Lincoln started strong, and a personal 7-0 run by Payton Curry pushed the Alices to a 27-15 lead late in the first half. Washington got within three by halftime and gradually pulled ahead by as much as five in the fourth period before Lincoln finished strong.
A 7-2 spurt put the Alices ahead, 59-53, with a minute left, and despite the best efforts by Washington's Grant Niehaus, Lincoln held on behind E Smith's four straight free throws in the final 30 seconds. Niehaus finished with a game-high 34 while Smith scored 17, Torrence Gillis 15 and Curry 11. It was the final Big Eight Conference meeting between the schools.
The second contest also carried historic meaning as it was the first sectional to be played at Lincoln since 1997, when current Washington coach Gene Miiller was patrolling the sidelines for the Alices.
It was tied, 14-14, after one quarter, which saw three ties and four lead changes. Lincoln controlled the second period to go up 28-21 at halftime, and a Curry 3-pointer to start the second half put the Alices in front by 10. But Washington barely missed the rest of the way.
The hot shooting put the Hatchets ahead, 56-49 with 1:42 remaining, but clutch 3s by Gillis, Ethan Bushey and Noah Bushey along with critical charges drawn by each Bushey brother allowed Lincoln to get to overtime tied at 58. It was tied again at 60 and 62, but this time the Alices failed to withstand Niehaus, who made all six of his overtime free throws, and he finished with 28.
Ethan Bushey had a career-best 30 points, Noah Bushey scored 12, and Gillis had seven points and eight assists. Trey Reed, who missed the first game with an injury, was also vital for Washington, tallying 18 of his 20 points after halftime.
Washington made 17-of-20 shots after halftime and finished 68 percent (25-of-37). Lincoln was 54 percent for the game, but failed to keep up its first-half pace when it didn't miss a two-point field goal (9-for-9). The Hatchets rode that momentum to their first sectional title since 2011, extending Miiller's tournament winning streak at Alice Arena to nine.