SPARTA — These are the games that Murphysboro lost with some consistency during December, the ones which require you to be strong with the ball, make your foul shots and stop the other team when one basket can cost you a game.
The Red Devils spent the last seven days winning these games, which is why they lugged the championship trophy home from the 55th Sparta Mid-Winter Classic Monday night.
Getting balanced scoring, hitting critical free throws and coming up with the stop it needed, Murphysboro edged Freeburg, 49-48, in Fulton Gym to win this tournament for the fourth time in nine years.
“I think we’re growing up,” Red Devils coach Daryl Murphy said. “We were losing these games, losing in overtime, not taking care of the ball. Now we’re winning those games.”
Murphysboro (14-6) went 4-0, winning its pool and then trimming the Midgets (13-7). The four wins came by a total of 12 points. In fact, it was its fifth straight win, with the margin of victory a slender 15 points.
The winning formula this game centered around 3-point shooting that led a second quarter surge, then a change in strategy in the fourth quarter that created the burst which eventually pushed the Red Devils over the finish line.
Nickname aside, Freeburg boasted the taller front line. At times in this one, the Midgets averaged 6-4 in the frontcourt. The tallest Murphysboro player stood 6-3.
It stood to reason that the Red Devils were probably going to need to hit a few 3-pointers. They did just that in the second quarter, drilling four as they outscored Freeburg 18-9 to establish a 27-22 halftime lead.
The key sequence came in the last 24 seconds. Corbin Guthman canned an NBA-range 3 to put them ahead to stay. After the Midgets quick-shot and missed, Jamarr McZeke drained a 3-ball as time expired for what amounted to an eight-point swing.
Murphysboro went 6 for 9 from distance in the half.
“We had to come out hot tonight and we did,” Guthman said.
After Freeburg sliced the Red Devils’ lead to 34-33 going into the fourth quarter, Murphy agonized when reserve guard Saviere Myers passed up a 3-point look. Myers didn’t pass up the next one, swishing it for a four-point advantage.
The Midgets cut the deficit to two and were about to force a turnover when Murphy used a 30-second timeout. The Red Devils followed that break by spreading out the Midgets to earn consecutive layups by McZeke and Dezmond Clark, then burned nearly a minute before Guthman drained a short jumper for a 43-35 lead with 2:23 left.
“We’ve been going pretty good,” Murphy said. “We’re not taking forced shots, not getting in a hurry. We’re executing and spreading the floor on people.”
Freeburg wouldn’t let Murphysboro enjoy the end of this one. Trading 3s for free throws on consecutive possessions, the Midgets crawled within 47-45 as Connor Diecker drilled one from deep with 31.4 seconds left.
But Guthman, who played quarterback at times the last two years for the Red Devils’ football team, hit Clark on a fly pattern that drew a shooting foul with 29.6 seconds left. Clark made one for a three-point lead, and then grabbed the rebound after Owen Smith’s potential game-tying 3 banged off the rim.
Clark’s free throw with 5.6 seconds sealed it, making Carson Smith’s board-and-cord 25-footer just before the buzzer meaningless.
“We had a lot of close games this week,” Guthman said. “I’m glad we were able to pull these out. These wins can give us confidence going into conference games.”
Guthman and JaQuan Jackson each scored 11 points for Murphysboro, while Clark finished with 10. Jackson and Myers each swished one-and-ones in the final minute.
Luke Ervie pumped in a game-high 20 for Freeburg and Diecker added 10 points.