MORAVIA — Two free throws, each more important than the next.
At stake, a conference title and a signature win for the program. That's enough to make a player forget to do the little things.
Fortunately for Moravia sophomore Jackson McDanel, his teammates were there with a reminder before he stepped to the foul line with 23.8 seconds left in Tuesday night's battle with Ankeny Christian Academy for the outright Bluegrass Conference lead. Trailing 47-46 and still in the single bonus, each free throw had to go in for the Mohawks to complete an 11-point fourth-quarter comeback.
"That's a lot of pressure, but my teammates were there calming me down and reminding me to breath," McDanel said. "I took a couple deep breaths before I took the free throws. That helped a lot."
McDanel's first free was so pure, that head coach Brian Bickel even called it out halfway to the basket. After splashing home the game-tying free throw, earning the bonus shot, McDanel sank what proved to be biggest shot of the night sinking the decisive foul shot in a 48-47 win that set off a wild postgame celebration in Moravia that included everything from a court-storming by the student section to players hoisting the coaches up on their shoulders for a ride around the hardwood as Moravia clinched at least a share of the Bluegrass Conference regular-season title one year after being edged out for by ACA for the same prize.
"The boys got down a few times, but they kept picking themselves back up and got back in the fight," Bickel said. "They never doubted themselves. I'd like to say it's just luck and you have it on your side, but I've told these guys from day one that you make your own luck. You work hard enough and get after everything as hard as you can. That's what creates luck."
There was no shortage of effort from the Mohawks, who were seeking to avenge two narrow losses to Ankeny Christian Academy with Bluegrass Conference titles at stake in both encounters. The Eagles edged Moravia, 65-63, for the regular-season title in the final minute before holding on for a 58-53 win in the conference tournament finals 11 days later.
"We've never beat these guys before," Moravia sophomore Shane Helmick said. "We wanted these guys, especially after the way we lost to them last year. We wanted to play these guys and beat these guys."
The motivated Mohawks scored six of the first seven points, jumping out to a 14-8 lead late in the first quarter. The Eagles responded with an 11-2 run over the next five minutes, taking a 19-16 lead midway through the second quarter and seemed to once again be poised to hand Moravia another disappointing loss by holding the Mohawks to just three points over an eight-minute span in the second half.
Suddenly, the hopes of a signature win and a conference title were fading away for Moravia as ACA opened a 45-34 lead with five minutes left.
"We just had to keep our heads. We just had to keep playing our game," Helmick said. "Our shooters just weren't hitting their shots. We told them to keep shooting. They did. We just kept cleaning up the boards, kept scoring points and fought our way back into it."
As a result, Moravia would finish the game on a 14-3 run that started with putbacks by Cole Hamilton and Riley Hawkins. Helmick also grabbed an offensive rebound, resulting in two free throws, before finding Hawkins inside for a lay-up with 1:44 left to cut ACA's lead to three.
McDanel, however, made his presence felt on the defensive end going up against all-conference senior Malachi Johnson. The Moravia sophomore came up with four steals, narrowly missing out on a fifth in a wild scramble early in the fourth for a loose ball, helping the Mohawks ground the Eagles (9-5, 7-1 Bluegrass) on the offensive end.
"It's just a matter of never giving up on a play and always play hard," McDanel said. "Playing tough-nosed defense is what this team's about. Everyone was going crazy. It feels great when you're out there playing like that."
Johnson sank two free throws with 1:26 left, giving ACA a 47-43 lead. Hawkins went to work on both ends, sinking a free throw resulting from an offensive rebound before calmly hitting two more free throws with 38.8 seconds left after coming up with a steal on the other end of the floor.
Down one, Moravia forced another turnover as McDanel was fouled coming up with the steal leading to his go-ahead free throws. The Eagles missed on a lay-up in the final five seconds, leading to a defensive rebound by Helmick that ultimately secured an emotional Moravia win.
"We lost seven seniors, including five starters, from last year's team. These guys playing for us now are the reason those seniors were so successful last year," Bickel said. "We had tough kids that we practiced against. They pushed us last year. I've got to hand it to them. They picked it up like they wanted it. They go hard, put in a lot of time in the offseason and it really shows."
Cade Wierck led ACA with a game-high 15 points in the loss while Johnson matched Logan Fincham with 11 points apiece for the Eagles. Gage Hanes scored 13 points to lead Moravia while Hawkins and Helmick each finished with 11.
Moravia (13-1, 8-0 Bluegrass) will earn the top see in the Bluegrass Conference tournament, earning a bye and a home game on Monday. Next up for the Mohawks will be a trip to Leon to face Melcher-Dallas (3-11, 3-6 Bluegrass) on Friday night.