It was the comeback to end all comebacks.
Edwardsville sophomore Caleb Strohmeier made three free throws with 1.3 seconds remaining to cap a remarkable rally in the final four minutes as the Tigers defeated East St. Louis 62-61 before a stunned Tuesday night crowd at East St. Louis High School.
East St. Louis (6-9, 3-2), which made just 6-of-17 from the foul line in the fourth quarter, led 53-39 with just over four minutes left in the game. And with junior center A.J. Epenesa picking up his fifth foul midway through the final quarter, Edwardsville (10-3, 5-0) appeared headed for its first Southwestern Conference loss of the season.
But thanks to horrendous free throw shooting by the Flyers and the scoring of Mark Smith and three-3-point field goals by Oliver Stephen, the Tigers gave Strohmeier a chance to be a hero.
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“I was confident I could make the free throws. We practice that situation all the time,” the calm, cool and collected Strohmeier said after the game. “Down by 14 points, there was no doubt. I knew we could come back.”
Smith led Edwardsville with 19 points while Stephen added 17. East St. Louis junior Arthur Carter led all scorers with 15 points, 14 coming in the fourth quarter.
Carter scored 11 points in the opening three minutes of the period as East St. Louis extended a 36-34 lead to 53-39.
But Carter was like all of the Flyers from the foul line in the final period, missing all four of his free throw attempts.
Flyers senior Karon Randolph made one of two free throws with 8.8 seconds remaining as East St. Louis extended its lead to 61-59. Edwardsville inbounded the basketball and hurried up the floor, where Strohmeier took a pass pass from Smith, took three dribbles and stepped in just before getting to the 3-point mark. Off balance when he let the shot go, Strohemeier was clearly hit by Randolph, who picked up his fifth and final foul on the play.
“I was just trying to get off a good shot. I leaned in a little bit and got fouled,” Strohmeier said.
Showing absolutely no signs of nerves, the Tigers sophomore made all three free throws as the East St. Louis crowd did what it could to disrupt his concentration. But it was all to no avail.
“I thought our guys did a good job of keeping its focus and doing what we had worked on in practice,” Tigers coach Mike Waldo said. “East St. Louis is a good team and their coaching staff had a good game plan against us. Their pressure really hurt us.”
The Flyers had one last chance following Strohmeier’s free throws by a desperation shot fell well short of the mark.
Dean Criddle: 618-239-2661, @CriddleDean