In a game involving a ton of fouls, it was easy to deduce there would be plenty of free throws. And in a highly-charged atmosphere, the team which handled those pressure situations better was almost certainly going to have an edge.
And while the Sherman Bearcats didn’t have overwhelming success at the line, they were able to do just enough and combined that with some key three-pointers and swarming defense to come away with a 52-42 victory against Denison in District 10-5A action at Bearcat Gymnasium on Friday night.
“Some of our games have hinged on our free-throw shooting,” Sherman head coach Jordan Marks said. “Fifty percent unfortunately is better for us. We were able to win a very shaky free-throw battle.”
Mason Gabriel scored 15 points, Gage Smith added 10 points, Tyler Fulton chipped in seven points and Braiden Speed finished with six points for Sherman (9-15, 1-2), which pulled even with the Jackets in a tie for fourth place and just a game behind Lovejoy and Princeton — whom the Bearcats host on Tuesday.
It is also the eighth straight victory for Sherman in the rivalry.
Zaelin Wimbish, Tarrence Gaines and Cade Gordy all scored eight points and Rustin Workman and Pierce Barker totaled five points apiece for Denison (6-15, 1-2), which went cold in the second half after holding a four-point half-time lead.
The Yellow Jackets scored 16 points over the final two quarters, including just six in the third when Sherman jumped ahead to stay. Denison had opportunities down the stretch but made just 2-of-9 free throws in the final eight minutes.
It was a common theme for the night. The Jackets connected on just 9-of-27 at the charity stripe while the Bearcats weren’t much better — 15-of-31 — but enough of a difference to hold on for the win in a game that ended with 50 fouls called.
“Thirty-three percent on free throws will get you beat every time,” Denison head coach Dale Rhodes said. “We missed a ton of free throws. We missed a ton of layups.”
Fulton made just two shots but they were big ones. His three-pointers in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter accounted for the only scoring in that span and Sherman jumped out to an 11-point lead.
It was badly needed because the Jackets responded with a 6-0 run — Barker and Gaines had layups followed by two Keleon Vaughn free throws — that got the deficit back to five with 5:19 remaining. Jalarien Wilson and Workman traded shots so it was again a five-point margin with just over four minutes remaining.
Denison couldn’t get any closer. It missed three straight free throws and then Speed drilled a three from the right corner with 3:22 left to make it a three-possession game.
Gordy answered but four more missed free throws over the next 30 seconds, combined with Gabriel going 3-of-4 at the line, sealed the win for Sherman.
Gabriel had more than half his points in the third and his three-pointer with 2:25 left in the quarter gave Sherman the lead for good. Speed hit a three-pointer early in the frame to spark the offense and Gabriel followed with a three to tie the game at 30.
“Once Braiden got that first one to fall, I was trying to find guys to play off that momentum,” Marks said. “We were able to hit those crucial shots.”
The teams traded baskets with Wimbish making it 32-all before Gabriel connected and then added a putback in the final minute as the Bearcats took a five-point lead to the fourth.
Denison began chipping away at an eight-point deficit early in the second quarter. Gordy led the 11-2 run with six of his points and Gaines’ layup off a steal at the end put the Jackets up 16-13. Smith tied it with a three, the Bearcats went ahead on a free throw but then Denison took the momentum the rest of the half.
Gaines scored four straight points for a 23-18 advantage and Barker hit a three-pointer between baskets by Dadrien Calhoun-Moore and Gabriel to give Denison a 26-22 half-time advantage.
“I knew it was going to be a hard-fought game,” Rhodes said. “They were going to come out and play better. We couldn’t match their energy.”
Sherman finished the first half 11-of-20 at the line and made just five shots while Denison was 7-of-16 at the line and hit nine shots. There were 29 fouls called at that point and combined there were nine players with a least two.
The tone for this one was set in the first quarter when a total of 21 fouls, including three technicals, were called. Sherman was in the double bonus starting at the two-minute mark of the first and Denison didn’t have to wait much longer for its turn at two free throws on each trip.
And because of the choppy play, neither team established anything early. In the middle of the first quarter Sherman had a 3-2 lead, all on free throws, and didn’t make a shot until Gage’s drive to the hoop with 1:54 remaining in the period for a 5-4 lead. Denison struggled almost as much, getting only buckets from Wimbish and Xavier Adan in that same span.
The Bearcats did finish the quarter with a flourish as Smith hit four free throws and Gabriel added another to give Sherman an 11-4 lead.
“The whole flow of the game was thrown off,” Marks said. “We try to pride ourselves on defense. You get stop after stop and you can hide some faults offensively.”