EDDYVILLE – Just like the weather, Kevin Archer knew tougher conditions awaited the Albia boys basketball team when the calendar turned to January.
“January’s tough for us. We play a lot of really good teams in January,” Archer said last month. “We’re going to get tested. We’re going to see some adversity.”
After cruising into the holiday break with six wins in six games, the road has been a little more treacherous navigate this month for the Blue Demons. Late shots refused to fall last Tuesday in a 63-50 loss to Washington, ending Albia’s bid for an unbeaten season and likely costing them a chance to enter this ranked ranked in the top 10 of Class 2A.
Montezuma, the new No. 1 team in Class 1A, and Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont were each a shot away from handing the Blue Demons two more losses this week. One night after Blake Chance hit a game-winning three-pointer with two seconds left in overtime to knock off the top-ranked Braves, 58-55, Albia found themselves in other game tied in the final seconds of regulation.
This time, sophomore Jackson Pence came through in the clutch, burying two free throws with 7.4 seconds left in a 53-51 win at Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont. Like Montezuma’s Trey Sherer on Monday night, Albia had to survive a late 3-point attempt as EBF’s Aidan Yates missed a wide-open bid at the buzzer for a Rocket game winner.
Two wins decided in the final seconds on back-to-back nights against two different opponents with different styles that ultimately pushed the Blue Demons to the exact same limit.
“This game (on Tuesday at EBF) had a different pace even though it had a similar ending,” Archer said. “Both EBF and Monte really come right at you. It was back-to-back games in which we were in real dogfights.”
On paper, it would appear the first of this week’s two thrilling road wins would mean more to the Blue Demons. The opportunity to beat a top-ranked team, after all, doesn’t come around every day.
While it was “pretty cool” for Albia to come through on the road to knock off one of four teams ranked No. 1 in Iowa High School basketball, Tuesday’s South Central Conference road win gave the Blue Demons the edge in the most recent chapter of an ongoing rivalry with one of their closest rival.
“Albia-EBF is a different beast. Even last year when we had sophomores against their seniors, we hung around,” Archer said. “I’ve been a part of some great Albia-EBF games. Records don’t usually matter in this one.”
It certainly didn’t on Tuesday. EBF, entering with a 3-5 record and three straight losses, jumped out to a 19-10 lead after one quarter against 8-1 Albia.
The Blue Demons responded, scoring 17 of the final 18 points in the first half to take a 27-22 lead over the Rockets. That just fueled the fire for EBF, leading to an immediate rally that kicked off a back-and-forth second half.
“Some of that might be about having a more experienced team. EBF does have more seniors, but we’re starting guys that have a lot more time on the floor,” Archer said. “They’ve really played well. They had every chance to beat Chariton last week and took Oskaloosa to the wire.
“We knew this was going to be tough. We’re scrambling a little bit.”
Blake Chance, Albia’s top scorer entering Tuesday’s game at 14.6 points a game, scored 20 for the second straight night and once again made several key shots including the 3-pointer that kicked off the 17-1 run to close the first half. Chance would have a go-ahead 3-pointer and a game-tying lay-up in the final six minutes of regulation on Tuesday, but he was hardly the only Albia player to step up. Blake Stewart, Liam Winfield and Joe Teno all had either tying or go-ahead field goals during the victory.
“Liam came in to hit a huge 3-pointer for us. He hasn’t played varsity in the last seven games,” Archer said. “Blake Stewart was great. He’s such an unselfish guy. He had a 15-footer that got a great roll in a big moment. I’m happy for him. He’s worked hard to be in that position.”
Seemingly every big shot hit by Albia was answered by EBF. Isaiah Smith had a tying lay-up in the third quarter to officially erase Albia’s 27-22 halftime lead before drilling a pair of go-ahead 3-pointers, the last of which put the Rockets ahead 51-49 with just over four minutes left.
Smith finished with 11 points and seven rebounds for EBF, including two free throws with over two minutes left to put the Rockets ahead for the final time. EBF turned the ball over twice in the final two minutes, once protecting the lead and once following a tying lay-up by Stewart as Albia pressed the Rockets out of a timeout to get possession of the ball with just over a minute remaining, the second straight night in which the Blue Demons could hold for the final shot of regulation.
“We felt like EBF would try to hold for the last shot. We were going to make it a little more difficult,” Archer said. “It’s scary when you’re in the bonus. We could have easily sent them to the line in that spot.”
Albia could not avoid overtime on Monday night at Montezuma, missing the final shot of regulation with the score tied at 50-50. On Tuesday, with the score tied at 51-51, the Blue Demons showed trust in both junior guard Trey Griffin and Pence, who Griffin found in the final 10 seconds leading to a shooting foul in the post and the two game-winning free throws.
“We knew it was going to be difficult to get Blake a clean look. Trey made a great entry pass. A lot of little things went well there on that play,” Archer said. “I knew they had some fouls to give (two), but we didn’t really talk about it. It’s always kind of tricky. You don’t want to give up a foul on a deep shot. That’s the stuff that will always drive you crazy with that situation.”
Pence put Albia up 53-51, but once again the Blue Demons could not avoid giving up a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded. Yates got a much better look than Sherer did for Montezuma, shooting a wide-open 3-pointer that was on line, but bounced right off the rim instead of sinking through the basket.
“I didn’t want to foul Monday night with Montezuma up three even though the players wanted to and they got a good look,” Archer said. “We’ve been in that situation where those games don’t go our way. It’s nice to do what you can to get wins late. We’ve just got to focus on what we need to do to get better.
“Yates got a great look. I didn’t even see him. I don’t know who left him or why we left him, but that was really dangerous.”
Albia’s bid for a third win this week comes on Thursday night as the Blue Demons (9-1, 6-0 SCC) host Chariton in a varsity doubleheader moved up a day due to the forecast of a winter snowstorm on Friday. Like EBF, Chariton lost the first conference clash this season with Albia 57-42 at the Charger Dome last month.
If this week has proven anything, Albia can’t afford to take anyone lightly.
“We’ve never went into a game against EBF where we haven’t felt like we couldn’t win, but you know that you’re going to get EBF’s best shot every time,” Archer said. “Eddyville kids are kids that are never going to quit. You can have them down 25 and they’re going to continue to fight.”
“I’m really proud of the guys that stepped up. The guys were disappointed in the locker room after the game with how close it was. I told the guys to be proud of winning back-to-back road games on back-to-back nights against two really tough teams.”