BLUFFTON – Kevin Leising, coach of the Bluffton boys basketball team, repeatedly tells his players, When I tell you to shoot it, don’t shoot it unless you really think you’re going to make it.
Few would have blamed Tigers senior Matthew Sturgeon if he’d had some doubts with 7 seconds remaining and his team down by two points Thursday night.
The Tigers had been outplayed most of the night, he had the notoriously rowdy Section L students a few feet from his ears and the conference championship was on the line.
But, as Sturgeon would later say, I had faith in it. I knew it was going in.
His three-pointer from the corner lifted the Tigers to a 65-64 victory over the Leo Lions, giving the teams a share of the ACAC championship.
We had to fight it out. It was just a tough one. They are a great team and they’re going to make a run in the state tournament, said Sturgeon, whose team improved to 12-5, 6-1 in the conference.
Sturgeon’s play was drawn up – sort of – during a timeout with 16 seconds remaining.
I want to give Matthew a lot of credit, Leising said. That was exactly the play that I drew up. It wasn’t necessarily that he was going to shoot the three, but that was absolutely a first option. In fact, he was right in front of me (on the other side of the court) down the stretch, and I really felt like (long range) was a good shot for him.
Sturgeon finished with 11 points, including 3 of 5 from three-point range.
Even after his momentous shot, though, the Lions (9-8, 6-1) almost snatched the victory away.
After a timeout, junior Bryce Beer missed a layup at the buzzer that would have won it for the Lions.
Bluffton was paced by senior Seth Thompson’s 15 points and eight rebounds, and senior Jackson Lambert’s 14 points.
Senior Chandler Prible had 10 points and seven rebounds.
Leo was up by as many as 10 points in the first half, but the Tigers fought back and went up 39-38 on Thompson’s three-pointer with 3 minutes left in the second quarter.
From there, the lead changed seven times. Two Prible free-throws gave the Tigers a 58-56 lead with 4:17 remaining in the game. Later, a terrific pass through traffic by Leo senior A.J. Busche set up junior Chandler Fields in the lane for a jump shot and a 64-62 Lions lead.
I never, ever, ever felt like we got control of the game, Leising said. I felt like it was always played at Leo’s pace. And I think that’s the sign of a championship team, that we still won the game even though it was never at our pace. I felt like a lot of that was due to our guts, our fight and our determination.
I also want to give Seth Thompson a lot of credit because he was a guy I really went after in the third quarter because he had made a couple of mental mistakes. Then he really came back and had back-to-back threes.
Leo was paced by Busche’s 13 points. Senior Sam Waters and sophomore David Hardin scored 11 apiece.
They’re a great team. They’ve got tons of options. If we would have gotten down on ourselves, we would have been done, Sturgeon said.