FREDERICKTOWN – As one might expect, East Knox basketball coach Ryan Powell had mixed emotions about the school’s football team making a deep playoff run this fall.
Yes, he was thrilled for the players and coaches: they made history, advancing to the state semifinals for the first time. At the same time, he knew what this would mean for basketball season.
Nine of his varsity players were on the football team, including several starters. Those players would be tired and beat up by the time football season ended, and they’d have little time to rest before basketball. His team would have less time to practice before its first game because of how long football season ran. They’d have to cancel or postpone early-season matchups just to squeeze in a few extra days of rest and rehearsal.
And even then, he knew it would take some time for the team to gel. They might get off to a slow start, simply because some of their top players had been in helmets and pads for the last four months.
He was right about the slow start. East Knox began the season 3-4. However, what happened on the court Tuesday night – when the Bulldogs shocked a county rival to capture their fourth straight win – might only have been possible because of what happened on the gridiron months earlier.
After going scoreless in the first quarter, and trailing Fredericktown 12-0, East Knox didn’t give in. Instead, the Bulldogs drew from their experience in the football playoffs last November, when they executed two second-half comebacks to survive and advance. They dug in their heels and did what Bulldogs do: they got to work.
East Knox remained calm and confident after falling behind by double-digits early. They pounded the glass, cut down on turnovers and calmly knocked down big shot after big shot.
They came back to beat the Freddies, 56-52, on their home court.
Business as usual for a group that’s used to winning the hard way.
“We’re still a very young team, in my opinion… But they have experience, and I think the football thing really helps these kids. They’re not deterred by bad times,” Powell said after the game.
“They know that they can come back from things. They’ve been in very tough and big situations, and it’s a good thing. I think we’re just now really starting to come together from a little bit of a slow start, where we missed quite a few practices. But those experiences are what I believe won us that game tonight.”
The man of the hour in crunch-time Tuesday was one of those tough-minded footballers – cornerback-turned-point-guard Shane Knepp, a sophomore working his way back from an injury he suffered in the second half of East Knox’s final football game last fall.
Knepp went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter, finishing with a team-high 16 points. For a player averaging 5 points per game – and shooting just 60 percent from the charity stripe – Knepp seemed to have the confidence of a senior as he stepped to the line to put the game on ice.
“I was expecting to get fouled. I’m the young one out there, so they’re gonna pick on me a little bit,” Knepp said with a smile. “But you know, we practice free throws every day. We put a lot of time into free throws and it helps. It shows.”
Despite Knepp’s flawlessness from the free-throw line, Fredericktown had a chance to win or tie at the end. The Freddies had the ball on the opposite baseline with 11 seconds to play, down by 2. Junior guard Ty Hatfield dribbled past halfcourt, then dropped the ball off to Lincoln Cunningham, the team’s leading scorer, on the baseline.
But East Knox sophomore Peyton Lester got his paws on the ball while Cunningham tried to rip towards the basket, causing a tie-up and a jump-ball. East Knox won possession, and Knepp calmly knocked down two more free throws to put the game away.
“Didn’t even have a chance – got tied up there at the end,” Fredericktown coach Derek Dibling lamented. “Just not a whole lot went our way after about the first eight minutes.”
He’s right about that. The first quarter was somewhat of an anomaly compared to the rest of the game. East Knox tallied six turnovers and one rebound during the period; Fredericktown, meanwhile, pushed the ball freely in transition and got to the basket.
During the minute-long break in between the first and second quarter, Powell said he had few words for his team.
“Honestly, I didn’t say anything... I looked at them for about 40 seconds and then I said, ‘If you don’t get rebounds and turn the ball over, this is going to get as ugly as it can be,’” he recalled. “And they responded.”
East Knox went on a 5-0 run to begin the second quarter. Nathan Whitney, one of the few non-footballers in the rotation, was instrumental in pulling the Bulldogs back into it. He had 6 points in the second stanza, including a pull-up jumper off a screen that narrowed the deficit to 16-11 with 4:37 to play.
As the Bulldogs heated up offensively, their defense also improved. They became more active in their zone – something Powell admittedly doesn’t like running, but thought might work Tuesday against Fredericktown’s playmaking guards.
“We’re by no means a zone team. I really hate to play zone. But against those guys, I think the perimeter zone kind of takes away some of their things they like to do. We’re just kind of trying to neutralize them a little bit, because they have some people who can score,” Powell said.
“It’s a necessary evil; we did it a little bit against them last year and it worked. We weren’t able to finish off the game. But I think it’s just something we kind of wanted to mix up with and keep them off balance.”
Fredericktown’s speedy guards had a hard time getting to the basket against East Knox’s stingy zone. And with the Bulldogs beginning to score on the other end, the Freddies were losing the transition opportunities they’d found in the first quarter.
Dibling said his team seemingly lost motivation after its dominant first period.
“We just stopped competing,” he said. “We stopped moving the ball, we struggled against their zone. For whatever reason, we just got complacent, I think – satisfied that our job was done, and failed to realize that we had three quarters of basketball left to play.”
East Knox finished the half on a 4-0 run. Senior forward Gage Steinmetz knocked down two free throws with 56 seconds left, then Lester laid the ball in off a baseline out-of-bounds set as time expired. Fredericktown’s once-abundant lead had been trimmed to 3, as the Bulldogs trailed 24-21 going into the locker room.
“I thought we had all the momentum at halftime,” Powell said. “We told them, ‘Hey, we have them on the ropes. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing with rebounding and taking care of the ball.’ I think we had six turnovers in the first quarter and four the rest of the game, and rebounding swung our way and we made some big shots.”
East Knox carried that momentum into the second half. Lester nailed a corner three to tie the game on the first possession. The Bulldogs took their first lead of the game with 2:14 left in the third quarter, as a wing three from Knepp made it 33-31.
Junior Weston Melick, East Knox’s leading scorer for the past two seasons, got going in the third quarter and couldn’t be stopped. The linebacker-turned-forward had 8 points in the period, as he buried two step-back threes and got to the bucket at will. His timely shot-making helped East Knox stretch the lead to 41-34 heading into the fourth quarter.
“We just decided to play defense,” Melick said afterwards, when asked about his team’s second-half mentality. “We finally got back on defense and decided to man up, and just take away their second-chance opportunities and get rebounds.”
East Knox kept a comfortable lead for most of the fourth quarter, until two free throws by Hatfield made it 46-42 with 1:30 left. The final 90 seconds were full-court chaos; both teams rapidly traded buckets as Fredericktown used its full-court press to speed up the game.
Hatfield buried a wing three to make it 52-50 with 26 seconds left. Then, after two more Knepp free throws, Fredericktown’s Mason Finnell converted a floater to make it 54-52 with 12 seconds remaining. East Knox missed two free throws to give the Freddies a chance at the end, but they couldn’t capitalize.
As the final buzzer sounded, East Knox big-man Chase Reynolds buried Knepp in a bear hug near the Fredericktown bench. It was a big night for the sophomore.
East Knox needed all eight of his free throws to put the game away.
“For a sophomore, he’s mature beyond his years,” Powell said of Knepp. “He’s a competitor... and it starts with football, it’s what’s instilled in them. I think they just want to compete.”
The win moved East Knox to 7-4 overall, 5-3 in the KMAC. Fredericktown dropped to 7-7, 5-4.
Dibling was speechless late Tuesday, trying to process what had just happened. The loss snapped Fredericktown’s three-game conference winning streak.
“Back to the drawing board tomorrow, I guess, try to get to the bottom of it. I wish I had more answers, but we just didn’t do enough,” Dibling said. “And we’ll give them some credit because they played harder than us. They absolutely played harder than us the last three quarters and we didn’t do the little things.”
The lone bright spot for Fredericktown was Cunningham, who scored a game-high 22 points. East Knox was able to bottle up the all-conference guard down the stretch, however, as he did not score in the fourth quarter.
For East Knox, Tuesday’s victory was more than just another tick in the win column. It was a show of strength – a testament to the team’s collective will power, not to give in when the chips were down.
“It just shows we can play for four quarters. I mean, even if we start off bad, we’ve still got three left,” Knepp said. “Don’t give up on us.”
East Knox: Knepp, 16; Melick, 13; N. Whitney, 8; Lester, 8; Reynolds, 5; Gallwitz, 4; Steinmetz, 2.
Fredericktown: Cunningham, 22; Fearn, 13; Hatfield, 9; Sheriff, 6; Finnell, 2.