Dowagiac holds on to edge Wildcats

Published 8:42 am Friday, March 9, 2018

THREE RIVERS — Dowagiac snatched victory from the jaws of defeat Wednesday night in a 61-60 Class B boys district basketball semifinal thriller over Three Rivers that was not for the faint of heart.

Trailing 60-57 with just under a minute to play, the Chieftains forced three turnovers and blocked a shot during the waning seconds to advance to Friday night’s district championship game against Paw Paw, a 63-50 winner over Edwardsburg, in the other semifinal game.

“I told the guys when there were four minutes left, ‘This is championship time,’” said Dowagiac coach Danum Hunt. “The last four minutes of the game is where you have to dig down and go win it, and the guys dug down and went and did their job.”

Following the basket by sophomore Parker Ellifritz that staked the Wildcats to the lead, Dowagiac senior Caleb Murphy meshed one of his two free throw attempts on the Chieftains’ ensuing possession to make it 60-58.

A steal by Trae Brookins resulted in two free throws for the 5-foot-10 sophomore that tied the score at 60-60 with 25.9 seconds remaining on the scoreboard clock.

Three Rivers coach Brian Burg signaled for a timeout after the Brookins free throws. Following the stoppage, Dowagiac senior J.J. Smith forced another Wildcats turnover and Brookins made the eventual game-winning free throw with 14.5 ticks left.

“It was kind of ironic, after the timeout, (Smith) said to me, ‘Coach, don’t worry, I’m going to go get a steal,’ and he went out and did it,” Hunt said.

Three Rivers raced down the court and got the ball to junior Jalen Heivilin, but Murphy rejected his layup attempt with 11.7 seconds remaining.

Following another Three Rivers timeout, the Wildcats again turned the ball over. Brookins missed the front end of the 1-and-1, and Smith later missed two free throws with 3.6 ticks left.

Burg used his last timeout to draw up the final offensive play of the game, but a heave at the buzzer by Ellifritz from just inside half-court missed its mark.

“It was ugly,” Hunt said. “We struggled and we had a lot of adversity throughout the game. We didn’t shoot well, we gave up more rebounds than we wanted to, but we were able to get it done and live to fight another day.”

Brookins hit back-to-back 3-point shots during the waning stages of the first quarter to stake the Chieftains to their largest lead of the contest at 18-9.

Ellifritz then answered with consecutive triples of his own to open the second quarter, enabling the Wildcats to cap a run of 11 unanswered points and assume their first lead of the contest at 20-18.

The inside-outside combination of Murphy and Brookins sparked a 15-5 scoring run by the Chieftains, but Three Rivers scored the final seven points of the second quarter and trailed 33-32 at halftime.

Heivilin hit back-to-back 3-pointers during the first minute of the third quarter and Three Rivers led throughout the frame, eventually taking a 47-46 lead into the final eight minutes following a 3-point bomb by Dowagiac sophomore D.J. Lanier.

Three Rivers led by as many as six points, 56-50, near the midway point of the final quarter, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.

“We had a chance; we put ourselves in position,” Burg said. “We diagrammed a play to come down against the press and turned it over. I give my kids credit. We had two days to prepare for this, and we prepared. It looked like we had it, and it just slipped away from us at the end. It’s tough.”

Hunt was quick to credit Three Rivers for the way the Wildcats controlled the tempo throughout the game.

“They were able to slow the tempo down on us and we fell right into the trap,” he said. “We talked, pregame, about setting the pace, but we just weren’t able to do that at any point tonight. We seemed to be one step behind when we were trapping, defensively, and we were a little slow. Three Rivers played an outstanding game. They’re a good team and (Burg) is a great coach.”

Murphy paced the Chieftains’ balanced scoring attack with 14 points. Brookins finished with 13 points, while Lanier and Smith chipped in with 11 and 10 points, respectively.

“Every night, that’s what we get,” Hunt said about the balanced scoring. “They come together, they share the ball and they play together well. It doesn’t matter who scores. We just want to get the job done and come out on top.”

Dowagiac (15-5) shot 39.3 percent from the field (22-of-56) and committed just five turnovers for the game, all of which came during the first two quarters.

Ellifritz scored a game-high 18 points for Three Rivers, while senior Tirrell Hausmanis added 14. Heivilin recorded a double-double for the Wildcats with 14 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.

Three Rivers (8-13) shot 40.7 afield (22-of-54) and outrebounded Dowagiac by a 46-27 margin.