HOWARD — The East Knox High School boys basketball team got off to a scorching start against the Mansfield Christian Flames on Tuesday night, and then held off a second-half Flame rally to earn a 67-59 home victory.
The win is the second in a row for the Bulldogs, who led by as many as 16 in the first half, including a 36-21 lead at halftime. Mansfield Christian rallied to within four, 56-52, with 3:33 to play, but East Knox answered down the stretch, however, going 7-of-9 from the free-throw line.
“I give (Mansfield Christian) a lot of credit; they are a good basketball team,” said East Knox coach Don McDaniel. “I told the kids we wanted to get on them early. This is the first time we’ve pressed from tip to buzzer, and I thought the kids responded well to that. We caused some turnovers, and also to get them out of their rhythm. We took them out of some things they wanted to do, but again, to their credit, they came back and hit some big shots. They did get a run on us, but our kids settled down and hit their foul shots, which is something we hadn’t done for a long time. I really think we handled the pressure better than we had in a long time.”
Luke Branstool started out the game for East Knox with a bucket off a pass from Michael Hedrick, but Mansfield Christian got a free throw from Tyler Lilly and a jumper from Michael Rodriguez to go up, 3-2. The Bulldogs responded with an 11-1 run over the next 2 1/2 minutes, however. Five different players scored in the run, including a 3-pointer by Nick McCamment. Rodriguez hit a jumper and Lilly a 3-pointer to cut the lead to four, 13-9, in the next minute, but back-to-back buckets by Khai Haralson and a layin from Branstool reopened a 20-9 advantage.
“We were clicking on all cylinders,” said East Knox senior Colton Tucker. “We were playing to our potential.”
Lilly hit another 3 to cut into the lead with 15 seconds left, and looked to score again before the buzzer. Branstool intercepted a pass however and chucked up a 3/4-court shot that found the net, giving East Knox a 23-12 lead after one. The Bulldogs shot 10-of-12 from the field in the first quarter.
“Our guards were penetrating, and when they do that, everything begins to flow well,” Branstool said. “That opened up some shots for me.”
The Bulldogs continued to pressure the Flames, and scored the first five points of the second quarter for the 16-point lead. Mansfield Christian, however, put together a 9-2 run to get the lead back into single digits, 30-21, with 2:44 to go. East Knox closed the quarter with three straight buckets, including two by Branstool, to go up 36-21 at halftime.
“I told the kids, ‘We have to step it up. We have to come out with more intensity because they are going to,’” said McDaniel. “They are a good basketball team; they are not going to roll over. We had to step it up because they were coming after us.”
The Flames came out of the locker room with an improved focus in the second half, and that quickly helped them get back in the game. Branstool scored off a rebound to open the third quarter, but Mansfield Christian went on a 13-2 spurt to pull within six. East Knox answered by outscoring the Flames, 9-4, down the stretch and held a 49-38 lead after three.
Lilly, who finished with 25 points and three steals, kept his team in the game early in the fourth quarter. He scored six straight points to open the quarter, pulling the Flames within five, and then matched a 3-pointer by Tucker. Two layins by Branstool, who finished with 26 points, 16 rebounds and four steals, opened the lead back up to nine, 56-47, with 4:29 to play. Toris Phinnessee hit a 3-pointer and Caleb Otero scored on a putback to pull Mansfield Christian within four, 56-52.
“We knew they were going to come back,” said Tucker. “We had to play the game and keep battling ourselves.”
That was as close the Flames got, however. Haralson scored six straight points to reopen a 10-point lead, and East Knox went 5-of-7 from the free-throw line in the final minute and a half to seal the win.
“We work on free throws all the time and tonight, it paid off,” said Tucker.
McDaniel said,”(When they pulled within four,) I just thought, ‘Here we go again,’ but the kids stepped up. They did everything we asked them to. They did a great job.”
In addition to Branstool’s big game, Haralson finished with 19 points and six rebounds. Tucker had 11 points and two steals; and Drew Faucett had seven assists and four steals.
“This was pretty close to a complete game; we did have some mental breakdowns when we let them back in (the game),” said McDaniel. “We typically aren’t a pressure team, but tonight, that’s what we wanted to do for them. When they started to get back into it, we got out of that a little bit. During one of the timeouts, I reminded them of that.”
Rodriguez had 13 points and 10 rebounds for Mansfield Christian.
“This boosts our confidence quite a bit,” said Tucker. “We’re back to 6-6 now, and we have a chance for a winning season. We’ve just got to keep it up.”
Branstool added, “We’re getting back into league play, so it is going to be tougher, but we’ve got a lot of confidence now. We’ve won more games now than we did all of last year, so we’ve just got to keep pushing.”
The back-to-back wins give the Bulldogs some much needed momentum heading into the second half of the Mid-Buckeye Conference season, which begins Friday night. East Knox hosts Utica, whom it beat earlier in the season.
“I think this gives us a lot of momentum,” McDaniel said. “We had a pretty good game here against Danville. It was a little sloppy with turnovers, but we won that on Friday. We got this one, so we have to in a row and now we’re looking at a Utica team that is a lot better than when we played earlier in the season, but it is a team they know they can beat. Mentally, we should be prepared for Friday night.”
The East Knox junior varsity squad rolled past Mansfield Christian, 34-13. Brandon Berger scored 15 to lead the Bulldogs, and Cody Totten scored 10 points.