Hayden Hankinson

Centerburg junior Hayden Hankinson powers up for a hook shot over a Fredericktown defender on Friday night. Hankinson scored 19 points in Centerburg's nine-point rivalry win.

CENTERBURG – With 2:51 left until halftime on Friday night, the roof began to cave in on the home Trojans.

They were getting ambushed in their home gym, against their arch-rival, with a furor that lent itself to flexing and clapping and shrieks of “Let’s Go!” from the visitors in red.

There was Fredericktown’s Nick Cunningham, who scored 11 of his 20 points in the first five minutes of the second quarter. He scored eight straight, launching deep missiles that rarely nicked rim, quieting the once-raucous Centerburg student section.

Then there was the Clem Cunningham putback, followed by the Jake Partington and-one drive that put the Freddies up 30-19. After entering the quarter tied, it quickly became do-or-die time for the Trojans, who needed this game to stay apace atop the tightly contested Knox Morrow Athletic Conference.

Suddenly, Centerburg found the answer. It came by brute force, courtesy of the team's most reliable bruisers.

Carter Jones and Hayden Hankinson, the twin towers who have led the Trojans in scoring this season, once again stepped up to shoulder the load. This time, they did it in style.

Hankinson made two free throws after muscling his way to the basket, stopping the bleeding. Then Jones found Hankinson in transition on a crisp wrap-around pass, and the big man laid it in to cut the deficit to 7.

The Trojans ended the half on a 9-0 run, capped off by a Jones step-back three from the top of the key as time expired. The home crowd came to life as Jones held the follow through and the ball snapped through the net.

Down by just two at halftime – and having weathered the storm – Centerburg had cracked the code.

“They’re in control of knowing their stuff right now,” Centerburg head coach Skyler Brusco said of Jones and Hankinson, his four and five. “They know where they need to be, they know what they need to do, and they understand it. They understand what it takes to win.”

That’s all that mattered for Centerburg on Friday night, as the Trojans used the same formula in the second half to take down Fredericktown, 64-55.

Jones finished with 30 points, a season-high. Hankinson added 19.

After Friday’s result, Centerburg (7-4, 5-2 KMAC) and Fredericktown (7-4, 5-2 KMAC) are now tied for second in the conference. Highland beat Northmor on Friday, placing them a game ahead in first. East Knox lurks one game behind the Trojans and Freddies with seven conference games remaining.

“It was a big one for us,” Jones said afterwards, jersey untucked, standing among friends and family. “We try not to look too far down the road but beating Fredericktown, that was really good for us. It feels good tonight, but (we’re) back to work tomorrow.”

Perhaps most impressive about Jones’ and Hankinson’s performances on Friday night was their poise at the free throw line, especially down the stretch.

The two shot a combined 20-for-24 from the charity stripe (83 percent), which is all the more impressive considering free-throw shooting has not been the Trojans’ strong suit this season. They shot just 50 percent in last Friday’s win over Northmor and 22 percent in their buzzer-beating win over Utica two weeks ago.

But on Friday, they pulled it together. Jones said the coaches made the team do push-ups this week at practice if they missed free throws. He said it paid off.

“We got pretty strong up at the line,” said Jones, smiling at his own pun, “and it kind of helped us.”

After finding Fredericktown’s kryptonite at the end of the first half – the Freddies are quick but undersized, lacking the physicality to contend with Jones and Hankinson – Centerburg took advantage in the second half.

They pounded the ball down low to both bigs, who either converted on hook shots or got fouled in the process. Centerburg scored the first five points of the third quarter, stretching the run to 14-0 before Fredericktown finally answered.

The Freddies kept it close through most of the second half. After four lead changes, the visitors found themselves up 41-37 with two minutes to play in the third quarter. But Centerburg closed out the quarter masterfully once again, as Jones powered in a put-back lay-up and Hankinson converted a baseline bucket to tie things up heading into the final stanza.

The Trojans received huge minutes once again on Friday from Dalton Hall, the freshman who hit the overtime buzzer-beater at Utica on Dec. 29. Hall poured in 8 points and knocked down two threes, his biggest coming on the first possession of the fourth quarter.

Moving without the ball, Hall cut through the lane and used an elevator screen to spring open at the top of the key. Hall set his feet, received a pinpoint pass and proceeded to drain the shot. Centerburg would never again surrender the lead.

The Trojans were patient and poised on offense, handling Fredericktown’s desperate pressure with veteran-like calmness. They worked the ball around and got the ball inside, where Jones and Hankinson could go to work. With Mead running point, the Trojans committed just six turnovers. Fredericktown finished with 15.

“Instead of playing their speed, I thought we played our speed,” Brusco said, “which is what we wanted to do.”

On defense, they put junior Hayden Sutton on Cunningham, who cooled off considerably after the second quarter. Sutton played Cunningham tight on the perimeter, forcing him into contested jumpers. Hankinson and Jones played clean, physical defense down low, deterring shots and hauling down rebounds.

But Fredericktown still had a chance at the end. They trailed 56-47 with 2:49 left, plenty of time for a run-and-gun team to close the gap. Then the turnovers came – and they came in bunches.

The Freddies recorded four turnovers in the next 57 seconds – some forced, some unforced – and that sealed the deal.

“We couldn’t get in any sort of flow and we just turned the ball over and made some pretty uncharacteristic, bad passes,” Fredericktown head coach Derek Dibling said. “I think at times we kind of lost our heads a bit and played outside of what I know we’re capable of doing.”

The Trojans have now won three straight conference games and will head into the second half of the round-robin slate as the KMAC’s hottest team. There’s a lot of basketball left, Brusco said, but his team seems to be finding itself after a tough start.

“I think we have good leadership on this team,” Brusco said. “They are all-in and they kind of have a refuse-to-lose attitude right now. They’re worried about one thing and that’s playing hard.”

The Trojans hope to get senior guard Michael Kuhn back from injury within the next two weeks, Brusco said, which will add to their depth down the stretch. They will rest this weekend before traveling to Cardington (2-11, 1-6 KMAC) on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Fredericktown will have to shake off a tough loss before heading to Northmor (4-6, 3-4 KMAC) that same night. It was an uncharacteristic night for the Freddies – the turnovers, the missed shots, the lack of execution down the stretch.

That will have to change quickly, Dibling said, if they want to stay in the conference title hunt.

“They’re a resilient group. I’m pretty sure practice tomorrow morning will be one of our better ones, I have this feeling,” Dibling said. “But yeah, a lot of basketball left. I think our goals are still in sight, but we’ve obviously gotta do a better job in a lot of areas. We can’t come out and fall short in so many different areas and expect to be very successful.”

BOX SCORE

Centerburg: Carter Jones, 30 points; Hayden Hankinson, 19 points; Dalton Hall, 8 points; Mick Mead, 5 points; Hayden Sutton, 2 points.

Fredericktown: Nick Cunningham, 20 points; Jake Partington, 12 points; Clem Cunningham, 7 points; Terry Fearn, 6 points; Lincoln Cunningham, 6 points.

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Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.