JUNCTION CITY — With 1:09 left in the game and the Manhattan boys basketball team trailing by two points to Junction City on Tuesday, coach Benji George had options.
One was giving the ball to Raeshon Riddick and allowing him to do what he does best: score points. After all, Riddick surpassed 500 points for his career during Tuesday’s game.
Instead, George opted to put the ball in the hands of Owen Braxmeyer. It was a decision that paid off, with Braxmeyer getting fouled going up for a layup — which he made. Up by one, 45-44, with 57.5 seconds remaining, Braxmeyer converted the subsequent free throw to give the Indians the 46-44 lead.
The Indians didn’t relinquish that advantage, holding on to beat the Blue Jays 46-44.
“(I’m) just proud,” MHS head coach Benji George said. “I mean sometimes in February, and especially on the road in the Centennial League, you just survive and move on. That was definitely it tonight — we just survived and moved on. Proud of our effort responding from the adversity in the fourth quarter, and just proud of our guys for hanging in there.”
George said the final minute of the game was “total craziness.”
The large Manhattan student section behind the team’s bench helped motivate the team, but made it hard to communicate with the referees.
“The officials had such a hard job and part of it was not necessarily yelling because you’re so mad. It’s just you want to make sure they can hear you,” George said. “So we’re screaming and they sorted it all out. I was just proud Owen was able to go in and make a play and then I was really proud of the two stops late.”
Several plays, and fouls, later, the game ended with the Indians celebrating.
The game started with Junction City jumping out to a 7-2 lead before Braxmeyer and Riddick hit pay dirt to pull within two of the Blue Jays.
Senior Brett Wilcoxson added the final point of the quarter, hitting the first of two from the stripe.
Down 10-9 after the opening quarter, the Indians scored early and often in the second period to take a 20-18 lead into the locker room.
“I thought the first half was a mirror image of the first half of the game in our place — like it was identical,” George said. “We were just up two instead of down two. So we felt like if we could just come out and win a four-minute war like we did at our place that we were going to be OK, and we did that.
“I really liked what we were doing for about 12 minutes there, and then the wheels fell off for about four minutes,” he added. “We just didn’t handle the pressure very well, but we hung in there enough to make a play at the end and make some free throws at the end. (We) definitely got some tough stops.”
The Indians changed their defensive scheme in the third quarter, which led to turnovers and points off those steals. Late in the quarter, Manhattan sat on top of a nine-point lead with just over a minute to play before the Blue Jays began to close in.
“I think a little bit of it — and the players recognized it — was focus,” George said. “Because we didn’t have a very good practice (Monday) night and I think where that shows up (was in) our layups, free throws and then just those crucial moments. And they recognized it. We’ve got a veteran team. They knew it. So we talked about just winning practice a little bit better before the game. I think it starts there.”
The Indians could have stretched their lead, George said, but consistency has been an issue for the team.
“We’ve talked about just putting together a complete 32 minutes — and we’re right there,” he said. “We’re right there doing it — just putting the (other) team away. We’ve just got to keep grinding and be able to to put the hammer down when we’re right there ready to break the game open.”
Up 33-27 entering the final quarter, the Indians just needed to hold on for eight minutes to secure the victory. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, were looking to rally and capture a home victory.
Both teams added points, and fast, with Manhattan once again extending their lead, this time to eight points.
Junction City fired back, notching steals and converting them to pull within two, 41-39, just past the midway point.
With 2:55 remaining in the game, a crucial foul call allowed the Blue Jays to pull within one point after a pair of free throws by Darren Battiste found the net. Nearly a minute later, Chaz Ruffin made a layup in the process of being fouled by senior Peyton Weixelman to give Junction City a one-point advantage. He then sank the ensuing free throw.
Down two points with 1:09 to play, the Blue Jays fouled Braxmeyer near the midcourt line on an intentional/flagrant foul to send him to the line for the deciding points of the contest.
With the victory in their pocket and the regular-season sweep of the Blue Jays complete, MHS will prepare to take on Hayden on Friday in the Indians' homecoming game.
George said he’s expecting a battle, as Hayden has turned up the heat on opponents recently.
"They’ve played everybody close," he said. "I think it’s going to be be a great environment at our place. We’re ready to head back home."