The first to arrive at early morning free throw practice, sophomore Kate Martin was exactly the one Edwardsville coach Lori Blade wanted at the free throw line with the game on the line Tuesday at Belleville East High School.
And on this night practice meant perfect for Martin and the Tigers.
Martin made two free throws with 2.3 seconds remaining to cap a late Tigers comeback as Edwardsville remained alone on top of the Southwestern Conference standings with a 49-47 win over Belleville East.
Soundly defeated by Edwardsville (54-33) in December, a much improved Belleville East squad led for nearly the entire game before Edwardsville (20-1, 8-1) took the lead on a basket by Martin with 2 minutes, 10 seconds remaining.
East (14-8, 8-3) tied the game at 47 on a 3-point basket by Ellisha Davis with just over 50 seconds remaining But Martin capped a wild final 16 seconds with her clutch free throws.
“We shoot free throws every morning and Kate is always the first one in there. Tonight her practice paid off,’’ Tigers coach Lori Blade said. “I’m very proud of this basketball team the way we were able to come back and beat a very good Belleville East team. We did a lot of standing around tonight, but we were able to get it done in the end. It was a gutsy effort.’’
Davis and Myriah Haywood led Belleville East with 14 points each.
Using its quickness and playing with a nothing-to-lose approach, Belleville East led after each of the first three quarters and saw a three-point lead grow to five on two occasions early in the final period, the second time coming on a stop-and-pop jumper by Haywood with just over five minutes left.
But after Haywood’s jumper put East up 44-39, the Lancers would score just one more time — on Davis’ 3-point shot, which tied the game at 47.
Three Lancers turnovers in four possessions keyed four points by Waters, which made the score 44-43 before Martin and Rachel Pranger put Edwardsville, ranked third in the Class 4A state poll, up 47-44.
Despite the late game mistakes, Lancers coach Amanda Kemezys liked what she saw from her team the entire night.
“The first time we played them in December it was our absolute worst game of the season, and so for us to be able to come out here tonight and play Edwardsville down to the wire shows just how far and how much progress we’ve made,’’ Kemezys said. “Our youth may have showed up there a little bit in the fourth quarter. But I told the girls that we had nothing to lose.
“We played with no fear tonight. I’m very proud of my basketball team and the effort they gave tonight.’’
After Davis’ shot tied the game, Edwardsville worked the clock down to 16 seconds before calling timeout. Pranger then had a chance to give the Tigers the lead but her shot rolled out and deflected out of bounds off a Lancers player with 3.4 seconds left.
Following another timeout, the ball was inbounded to Martin who was fouled with 2.3 seconds remaining.
“We wanted to work the clock down for a final shot,’’ Blade said. “It was good execution. The play worked well.’’
East had one final shot, but freshman Kayla Rainey’s shot from mid court fell off the front rim.
Martin scored four of her nine points in the final quarter for Edwardsville, which was led by 14 points each from Pranger and Criste’on Waters.