Saving the best for last.
For the first 30 minutes of the boys basketball showdown on Friday, Jan. 10, between West Jefferson High School and visiting Jonathan Alder, the parties involved would admit that the contest was mostly not an example of stellar hoops play.
But the squads more than made up for it in the final two minutes as the Pioneers sank five clutch free throws in the last 30 seconds to hold off the host Roughriders, 43-40. A last second three attempt by West Jeff fell short.
“We’ve been beat by threes at the buzzer twice this season,” said Alder coach Brent Cahill. “It was time something would go our way.”
As the fourth quarter started, the back-and-forth contest started to go the Pioneers’ way. Thanks to a three by Jon Peters, a bucket underneath by Andrew Koenig and a pair of foul shots by Tanner Killian, Alder exploded to take a seemingly-insurmountable 32-23 lead.
“When they got up by nine in the last quarter, we could have packed it in,” said West Jeff coach Bob Hunter. “I’m proud of the way our kids came back.”
The Roughriders started to chip away at the Alder lead — sparked by a steal and layup by Logan Stepp. A pair of shots in the paint by Nick Mendenhall cut the Pioneer advantage to 34-31 with less than three minutes to play.
Jonathan Alder’s Hayden Hess — who led all scorers with 18 — put in an offensive rebound to go up by five again.
After Mendenhall free throws, Stepp converted a steal into points with 2:10 remaining, cutting the visitor lead to a single point.
The West Jeff defense continued to exert itself as a Tyler Jones steal eventually led to a visit to the foul line by Matt Jones — giving the Roughriders the 37-36 lead — their first since early in the second quarter.
Mendenhall swatted away an Alder shot, but West Jeff was unable to take control of the ball.
Hess — the Pioneers’ elder statesman — scored from underneath with 43 seconds left to regain the lead.
Fourteen seconds later it was Hess again. This time he hit a free throw to put his team up by two.
Six seconds later the Pioneers were back at the charity stripe again, taking advantage of a West Jefferson turnover. Koenig hit a pair to go up 41-37.
The Roughriders still had some fight left.
West Jeff’s Matt Jones hit a three with nine seconds remaining to make it a one-point game.
But it was Hess one last time with a pair of free throws at the seven second mark to cause the home squad to try a three to tie.
The last second shot fell short, and the Pioneers held on for the win.
“We lost some poise when we lost the nine-point lead,” Cahill said. “I’m proud of the way our kids fought through it.”