Something crazy typically happens on the first day of the Mater Dei Christmas Tournament and Tuesday was no exception.
Highland Bulldogs junior Stephen Schniers was fouled on a desperation three-point try and sank the final two of three free throws with 1.5 seconds remaining as the 10th-seeded Bulldogs shocked top-seeded and previously unbeaten Okawville 37-36 just two games into the tournament.
Okawville entered the game 9-0 and ranked first in the Class 1A state poll, while Highland began tourney play having lost seven of its eight games.
“It was crazy,” Highland coach Brian Perkes said.
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Okawville had a one-point lead when leading scorer and University of Evansville recruit Noah Frederking went to the free-throw line with 7.3 seconds remaining. Frederking missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity, giving the Bulldogs one more chance.
After he was fouled, Schniers had to wait a while to step to the foul line while the officials had a discussion. Schniers missed the first free throw, but made the final two and the Bulldogs held on for a huge upset in Game 2 of the day.
“I was shaking,” said Schniers, who really had to work hard just to get his desperation shot off and even then wasn’t sure a foul would be called. “That was the most pressure I’ve been under in quite a while. I wasn’t too worried. I knew I had three of them, so I only needed one to tie it up, two to win.”
Perkes, in his first year coaching at Highland after coaching and playing previously for Mater Dei, was asked about the advice he gave Schniers before shooting the free throws.
“Make them,” Perkes said. “Stephen’s a good player; he hit a big shot against (Civic Memorial) that sent the game into overtime, and we were fortunate enough to win that game. If we get the ball in Stephen’s hands, you feel pretty good about the outcome.”
Schniers led Highland with 12 points and nine rebounds, while Stephen Torre had eight points and Brady Feldman added seven. The Bulldogs found great success with a zone defense throughout the day that at times included at least one and sometimes two players chasing Frederking.
Frederking began the day averaging 24.8 points and needing 11 points to break the all-time tournament scoring record. He was limited to eight points on 4-for-12 shooting. Shane Ganz led the Rockets with 11 points, but Okawville could never find its range from the 3-point arc.
The Rockets hit only six of 27 3-point tries and managed only two field goals and 10 points during the entire second half.
“We never really got going in the flow of our game, and a lot of that had to do with their defense,” Okawville coach Jon Kraus said. “They played a zone defense, and we were ready for it, but we stood around and watched a lot. We shot 27 3s, and if you make six out of 27 3s, you’re going to struggle to score.”
Schniers also tied the game 35-35 with 2:45 remaining after Frederking had drained a 3-pointer. The team traded turnovers before Frederking went to the foul line with 7.3 seconds remaining.
“I’m not making excuses, but we have some guys that have not been in this situation before, so it’s a good learning experience for them,” Kraus said. “We’ll learn from it and be better.”
Perkes said the Highland defensive game plan totally revolved around keeping a close eye on Frederking and Ganz. It began with a triangle-and-two and later morphed into a tradition zone.
“We did that most of the first half, and then in the second half, we played a 1-2-2 zone, but we told them to be aware of where Ganz and Frederking were at,” Perkes said. “As the game dwindled down, we felt like those other kids would be less likely to shoot when the game was on the line. Credit our kids, they played their butts off.”
Kraus felt his team could have and should have been more aggressive against the Highland zone.
“We’ve been working on that stuff stuff all year, our kids just didn’t make plays today,” he said. “We stood around a lot and didn’t move, didn’t find open spots and waited for everything to happen. It’s not going to happen. You have to make things happen, and we just didn’t do that today. We stood around and watched the game — didn’t get in there and get after it.
“We shot like 25 percent or whatever, but you’ve got to give them credit. They did a good job — did what they had to do to win the game.”