Leader Blues

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

SPORTS >> Owls grind out gritty win against league rival

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

CONWAY – Tim Ballard politely declined the offer to cut down the nets shortly after his Abundant Life Owls beat Conway St. Joseph 43-35 to capture the 5-2A North district tournament championship on Saturday night.

Maybe the high-octane Owls proving they could prevail in a slugfest was reward enough for Ballard. More likely, Ballard had his eyes on bigger nets — and prizes — down the road.

“I don’t want any kind of feeling of closure right now,” said Ballard, whose team remains atop the state rankings in 2A. “I told them before the game, I don’t care if you win or lose, I just want to see some things that show we’re ready for state. Toughness and grit and determination. I saw that tonight.”

The Owls, who ran the table in the conference regular season, handed the Bulldogs their third loss of the season to drop them to 27-4. Abundant Life improved to 28-7 and will open regional play next Wednesday evening at 8:30 when it takes on host team Augusta.

“I feel like every time we beat (St. Joseph) like we stole something,” Ballard said. “I feel like they’re better than us, but we’ve somehow beat them three times.”

With the Bulldogs limiting Owls leading scorer Dane Lottner to just 11 points, it was Mike Stramiello who picked up the slack for Abundant Life, leading the way with 18 points, hitting critical free throws and repeatedly taking it inside against the big Bulldogs for baskets or fouls. He single-handedly kept the Owls around in a brutal first half when the team that routinely scores in the 70s connected on only 4 of 17 shots and trailed 14-13 at intermission. Abundant Life scored only four points in the first quarter.

“Mike is a savvy player,” Ballard said. “He makes things happen. I told him tonight that I needed him to be a playmaker, to go with his instincts and make plays. Sometimes he has a tendency to question what he’s doing but I told him, don’t look at me, just go make some plays.”

Marcus Kordsmeier, who led the Bulldogs with 18 points, gave St. Joseph its biggest lead at 14-7 on a bucket and a free throw at the 3:08 mark of the first half.

But a couple of inside buckets and a free throw by Stramiello had the Owls trailing by a single point at intermission. Stramiello had 10 of Abundant Life’s points at halftime.

The Owls finally began to solve the Bulldogs’ man defense in the third period when they made 5 of 10 shots. Lottner finally got untracked, opening the quarter with a pull-up three-pointer to give the Owls their first lead of the game. Terrell Ghant followed with a three and Dustin Keathley added another with 2:14 left. Lottner’s spinning 10-footer opened up a 26-19 Abundant Life lead late in the period.

“They threw us off,” Ballard said. “We were all keyed for their world famous match-up zone and went and flipped the script on us (and played man). It was a good move so I decided to change it up on (St. Joseph coach Brent Bruich). We hadn’t played them man before so went to man to see if we couldn’t bother them some.”

Cameron Slayton’s three from the left corner rattled in to give the Owls an eight-point lead and when Lottner scored from 12 feet and Ghant drilled a pair of free throws, it looked like the Owls were home free at 35-25 midway through the final period.

But Abundant Life turned the ball over twice in succession and Kordsmeier delivered a three-pointer and a bucket and free throw to close the gap to 37-34 with 1:52 left.

Stramiello, who made all six of his free throws in the fourth quarter, knocked down a pair to extend the lead to five and Kordsmeier hit one of two to whittle it to four.

St. Joseph had a chance to get it to a one-possession game after another Owl turnover, but missed and Slayton made a pair of free throws to extend the lead to 41-35 with 1:10 left. The Bulldogs’ last gasp came five seconds later when they got two free throws. They missed them both and Lottner made 2 of 4 charities over the final 41 seconds to set the final margin.

While Lottner struggled on the offensive end, he came up with two steals and two blocks. Ghant, the Owls point guard, helped his team to a critical 31-20 advantage on the boards by pulling down a team-high eight rebounds. He also had a pair of steals and scored five points.

After missing all seven of their three-point attempts in the first half, the Owls hit 4 of 6 in the second half and finished the game 11 of 30 overall from the field. They turned it over 19 times. The Bulldogs were a frigid 13 of 42 overall and made only 2 of 14 from deep. The Owls helped themselves at the free throw line, where they made 17 of 21.

“I tell you why a game like this helps our confidence,” Ballard said. “Everybody knows we can play up-tempo and flashy and win on the run. But people question whether we can grind one out and win a tough one. When you can win a tough one like this on their court, that speaks well of you as a team.”