The spectators knew exactly what was coming. They knew in precisely the same way that you know a big, muscled steam engine is rolling down the track. You don't have to feel the steam in your eyes or the rumble beneath your feet to know what's on its way.
You know because of something in the air, like the vibration of an inaudible whistle or the wisp of a creosote scent.
That was the aura of anticipation draped over the men's basketball game between the Central Lakes College Raiders and the Mesabi Norsemen Saturday. The Raiders won 82-80 in a game that seemed destined to go down to the wire, to be won or lost as the final seconds dissolved from the clock.
It didn't matter that the Raiders led throughout the contest. Or that by halftime CLC held a 44-39 advantage. Or that the lead was stretched to 11 points with only 6:07 left.
It didn't matter that Raider Joe Clough seemed to be able to penetrate and score any time he wanted. Or that Garth McFadden was draining shots more consistently than Crazy Googenhimer. Or that Jay Mrozek was hitting an incredible 73 percent of his attempts from inside the arc. Or that Clough, Mrozek and McFadden would each finish with 20 points.
Something in the way these teams matched up, in the style they threw onto the court made a last-minute showdown inevitable.
"You knew that neither team was going to get much of an edge pressing," said Raiders coach Jim Russell, "because everybody had good ballhandlers. It was almost like the game was going to come down to who made the last mistake."
It did. And the error was by Mesabi.
The Raiders carried a 71-61 edge into the last 4 1/2 minutes. But a combination of CLC turnovers, missed free throws and outside sniping by Mesabi cut that lead to 73-68 with 3:30 remaining.
A three-pointer by the Norse's Jerett Werner-Powell was followed by a driving layup by Mesabi's Kenny Williams that made the score 73-70.
Travis Janich made the front end of a one-and-one to give CLC a four-point lead. But Werner-Powell was fouled by Clough and made two free throws to trim the margin to 74-72.
Clough brought the ball down court, was fouled and coolly canned his free throws. The score was 76-72 with 1:30 left.
The Raiders stepped up their defense and denied Mesabi an attempted shot until all but nine seconds had rolled from the shot clock. But the intensity cost a foul.
Two Norse free throws made the score 76-74. A Clough drive and layup pushed the lead back to four but another Mesabi bucket from outside the arc, this time by Mister Bay, left the scoreboard showing 78-77 with 35 seconds remaining.
Garth McFadden was fouled and made both attempts but once again Werner-Powell found his three-point range and tied the score 80-80 with 24 seconds left.
Russell called a timeout and calmly spelled out his strategy as his Raiders listened.
"We wanted to clear it out for Clough because all night long they couldn't stop his penetration" Russell said. "And, we figured, well, if he gets in the lane he'll either score or they'll foul him and make him earn it at the free throw line."
Russell's strategy worked to perfection. Clough calmly dribbled 20 seconds off the clock before driving with authority to the hole and softly banking in a layup for the final score.
"It worked out," said Russell. "Good teams learn that if they execute at the end of the game, they're going to win."
Mesabi immediately called timeout and made its plans for the final four seconds. What the Norse planned and what they ended up doing had to be two different things.
"With four seconds left, I wanted to force Mesabi to catch the ball in front of us," said Russell. "That's what happened and I think when their player got the ball, he turned and wanted to get going but he traveled instead."
It was Mesabi's Kenny Williams who took the inbounds pass. But when he turned up court, he forgot to dribble.
"This was a good win for us, a real confidence booster," Russell said. "I'm really, really proud of our guys. This was a great team win. Everybody got in there and got aggressive. They played with some attitude."
An attitude that wouldn't accept defeat and in the end that couldn't, like a determined old steam engine, be stopped.
Mesabi Range (80)
Mister Bay 5, Tim Fleming 8, Corey Morgan 3, Dave Dorau 5, Kenny Williams 15, Casey Zilka 18, Jerett Werner-Powell 20, Justin Walker 6. Team totals: FG 30-57 (53 percent). FT 12-15 (80 percent).
Central Lakes (82)
Brandon Flanders 4, Garth McFadden 20, Aaron Otteson 7, Joel Clough 20, Travis Janich 1, Zach Wymore 4, Jay Mrozek 20, Wade Mortenson 6. Team totals: FG 29-60 (48 percent). FT 18-25 (72 percent). Conference -- 4-4. Overall -- 8-10. Next game: at Hibbing 8 p.m. Wednesday.
3-point baskets -- CLC 6, McFadden 2, Otteson 2, Clough, Mrozek; M 8, Bay, Fleming 2, Dorau, Williams, Zilka, Werner-Powell 2. Rebounds -- CLC 29; M 36. Turnovers -- CLC 12; M 20. Total fouls --CLC 13; M 20. Assists -- CLC 24, McFadden 5, Clough 5; M 21 Williams 6. Steals -- CLC 15, McFadden 6; M 5. Blocks -- CLC 3, Mrozek 2. Halftime -- CLC 44; M 39.
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