By Joe Scalzo
With 29 seconds left in Tuesday’s Division III district semifinal and his team clinging to a two-point lead against its biggest rival, Springfield senior Ron Rogers stepped to the free throw line with the game, the season and his career on the line.
So, you know, no pressure, Ron.
“I just stepped up and knew I had to make them,” said Rogers, shrugging.
His coach had no doubt he would.
“Ronnie’s been our best player all year,” said Tigers coach Eric Fender. “He’s been our most consistent and he’s been our best shooter.
“When the game came on the line, we wanted to get him the basketball. We were either going to win it with him or lose it with him.”
Rogers made four straight free throws — all in a one-and-one situation — and the top-seeded Tigers held off second-seeded South Range 56-52 at Salem High School.
Rogers finished with 23 points, including 10 of 10 from the line, and 10 rebounds for Springfield (20-2), which will meet unseeded St. Thomas Aquinas on Friday.
The Tigers advanced to their first district final since 2005 — they beat Aquinas that year — but it wasn’t easy. South Range senior Brandon Pluchinsky made sure of that.
After taking a 10-point lead with just over two minutes left in the third quarter, Pluchinsky heated up, scoring eight straight points for the Raiders, who trailed by just two after three quarters, 44-42.
“When he makes one, he gets hot,” said Rogers.
The game stayed tight throughout the fourth quarter and was tied at 50 with 2:30 left. But South Range (17-5) went just 1 for 4 with a turnover to finish the game.
“Shots weren’t falling for us in the first half,” said Raiders coach Dave Purins, whose team shot 7 of 31 in the first half. “They’re a skilled team so they opened up a lead but I think as a team and as coaches, we didn’t feel we were out of it.
“Our team has scrapped and battled all year.”
The two teams split their regular season series and none of the three games was decided by more than two points. The game would have made for a good district final but Purins opted to jump into Springfield’s side of the bracket, avoiding the two parochial schools, third-seeded Canton Central Catholic and Aquinas.
When asked if he regretted jumping on Springfield, he said. “We didn’t jump on Springfield. We put ourselves in that half of the bracket, sure.
“Canton Central lost to St. Thomas Aquinas. I think that says enough.”
When asked if he would have rather played South Range in the final, Fender said, “It probably would have been more special but I’m not taking anything away from them. They’re a great team and every game has been competitive and that’s all you can ask for in a rivalry.
“We’re happy to play them wherever, whenever.”
Aquinas 65, Crestview 42
Conner Duplin scored 16 points and the Knights’ pressure defense flummoxed Crestview, which fell behind 15-3 in the first five minutes. Adam Piaciacchia added 10 points for Aquinas (10-13).
C.J. Collins scored 11 for the Rebels (14-9).