In basketball, free throw shooting is often the difference maker in whether a team wins or loses a game.
The narrative was no different on Thursday night in a cross divisional SOC game between the Clay Panthers and the Valley Indians.
Clay won the contest 61-52, in large part due to the fact that they shot 37 free throws in the contest compared to Valley’s 19.
At the end of the night, the Panthers finished 25 for 37 at the line (68 percent) to lead Clay to victory. Though free throw shooting helped secure the win, it hasn’t always been a bright spot for the Panthers this year.
“I think that was one of our flaws in the beginning of the season. Against New Boston for example, we missed eight free throws at the end of the game,” Clay head coach Sthefany Thomas said. “So, it just goes to show how the girls have been working on that and really soaking in everything we’ve been telling them as coaches.”
Jensen Warnock was big for the Panthers, posting 27 points, with 17 of those coming from free throws. She also recorded 11 rebounds, four blocks, and three steals.
“I’ve been asking her to have a breakout game on the season, I’ve been waiting for it,” Thomas said. “I think tonight she did a real good job knocking those free throws down at the end of the game, and it’s something that we’ve been talking about through the season, the importance of making free throws and knocking down free throws to close out a game.”
Valley head coach Mark Merritt said Warnock was able to create problems, and that his team faced a challenge in “court awareness of where Warnock was” throughout the game.
“She got open several times, and the defensive rotation wasn’t where we needed it to be,” Merritt said. “So, that’s something we need to work on.”
It was the Indians who jumped out to an early lead in the game, as their offense was hitting seemingly every open shot, and their defense brought forth a vigorous press that created some challenges for Clay.
In the first quarter, Valley would lead by as many as 11 after a pair of free throws from Kaity Howard were good with 24.9 seconds to play in the period.
Howard led the Indians in scoring with 14 points in the game.
The Panthers would put another score on the board just before the end of the first, as Cameron DeLotell hit a layup after a steal with just five seconds left before the buzzer.
After one, Valley was on top of Clay 16-7.
In the second quarter, the Indians still looked to be in control late, leading 24-15 with 2:15 before the half after Howard hit a jumper on a second chance for Valley.
Warnock and the Panthers would rally, starting with a four-point play for the junior after Warnock was fouled during a three-point attempt and made the shot.
On the next possession, Warnock would add another free throw to cut the lead to 24-20. Just before the break, Howard scored on a steal for the Indians with 30 seconds left to push the lead to 26-20 after two.
The second half saw Clay step it up defensively, and start sinking some shots on the offensive end. The Panthers would outscore Valley 18-5 in the third quarter.
Sophia Balestra started the scoring for Clay with a nice drive and layup on the baseline started off by a pump fake. Balestra reached double figures for the Panthers, scoring 14 points in the game.
Particularly in the third, Balestra made her presence felt.
She would hit a wide-open layup with 5:57 to cut the Indians lead to two, prompting Merritt to call for a timeout.
Out of the break, Howard hit a jumper to answer for Valley. Warnock would hit two free throws for Clay on the next possession, and shortly after Thomas was called for a technical foul for the Panthers.
Bre Call hit both of her technical free throws to give the Indians a 30-26 lead. Call had 13 points for Valley.
But, just as she had done earlier in the quarter, Balestra had an answer.
The junior drove to the rim and drew contact, but had enough strength to finish the basket. Balestra would hit her free throw, decreasing the Indians lead to just a point.
A possession later, Clay’s Sydney Osborn went coast to cost for a layup with four minutes to play to make the lead 31-30 in favor of the Panthers.
The basket was Osborn’s only score of the game, though the guard did finish with five rebounds and six assists.
From there, Clay would never look back.
“We just picked up the intensity defensively,” Thomas said. “We needed to cut turning the ball over, that was huge, and our shots weren’t falling in the first half and we started knocking down our shots in the second half.”
After three quarters were in the books, the Panthers had pushed ahead 38-31.
In the final frame, free throws became a factor late. Clay would shoot 19 free throws in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers pulled away to lead by as many as 13 in the quarter, after a pair of free throws from Warnock.
DeLotell helped maintain the edge for Clay, hitting two big three-pointers for the Panthers early in play.
“I think she went 0 for 5 in the first half, and in the second half she hit two threes that were just really important for us,” Thomas said.
In addition to hitting some big shots, DeLotell also did a good job of keeping Call in check through most of the contest. Entering the fourth quarter, Call had just four points.
“I thought defensively Cam did a really good job,” Thomas said. “She was guarding one of their best shooters, and I thought she did a good job taking away her jump shot and her looks through the game.”
Still, the Indians weren’t going away. With 2:24 to go, Call got an and one to make the score 53-50, but that was as close as Valley would get.
Call had a big quarter with nine for the Indians, but the comeback fell just short.
“We had a lot of foul trouble tonight,” Merritt said. “My bench came in and did a nice job to bring us back when we were down about 13 points, and got us within about three or four points.”
As the final buzzer sounded, Clay had a 61-52 win on the road.
For the Panthers, it was a win that showcased a lot of heart to make the comeback and continue fighting despite trailing.
“I honestly told the girls that was just all heart and effort and just guts,” Thomas said. “The girls really just dug deep and pulled the win out on the road against a really good team.”
“We’re injured right now, we’re missing a couple players, so it was really good to just see some of those girls step up and give us some really good minutes. To get this win on the road, that was a huge win for them emotionally, and for their teammates more than anything else that weren’t out there playing with them.”
With a young team for the Indians, there have been some growing pains along with some great signs of what is to come in the future.
“I keep telling my girls they have to mentally think about what they’re doing incorrect, and what they’re doing correct,” Merritt said. “We play one senior consistently, and some of the girls are still showing that immaturity about throwing the ball to the wrong place or trying to force a pass.”
“We caused some turnovers early, and then it seemed like we couldn’t handle the fortune and turned right around and threw it away or made a bad pass on the other end. 18 turnovers against a team like Clay is not going to get it.”
Although Valley fell just short, there were a lot of bright spots in the game for the Indians.
“It’s something to build on,” Merritt said. “Clay is a pretty good team, so we’ll just go from there.”
Reach Benjamin Spicer at (502)264-7318 on Twitter @BSpicerPDT or at Facebook.com/ReporterBenSpicer