If Oswego East shoots free throws the rest of the season like it did Saturday afternoon, the Wolves' 0-7 start will be long forgotten.
The Wolves sank 25 of 28 free throws to sink Batavia 58-53 in the opening game of the annual Ernie Kivisto Hoopfest at East Aurora High School.
The organizers of the three-game event couldn't have come up with a better matchup of teams traveling similar paths this season in getting off to slow starts (Batavia was 2-7 at one point), but rapidly improving as the season moves toward the final laps.
After Kendall Dorsey tallied a game-high 19 points and CJ Vaughn shook off a terrible shooting night from the floor to can 11 of 12 free throws and add 16 points, Oswego East (9-10) had secured its sixth straight win.
"I can't lie to you and tell you we've done that on a consistent basis this year," Oswego East head coach Ron Murphy said of his team's prolific night at the charity stripe. "There are games we've lost at the free-throw line, so it was good for us to be able to do that.
"It's another thing that we are doing better."
And the Wolves picked a good time to do it, making 11 of 12 free throws in the game's final three minutes to overcome a 49-45 Batavia lead. It also didn't hurt that Dorsey hit a pullup jumper in traffic for a 55-53 lead with 43 seconds left, and converted a layup after Vaughn broke through a Batavia press to feed him for a 57-53 lead with 30 seconds left.
But Dorsey knew he had to come through, as Vaughn struggled in making only 2 of 11 shots from the floor.
"Every shooter has off nights, but that's where you have to have teammates pick you up," Dorsey said. "But the free throws really helped us win this game tonight."
Batavia (9-10) started out displaying a solid half-court man-to-man defense, resulting in Oswego East struggling at 5 of 31 from the floor for 16 percent in the first half.
But the Wolves made 12 of 14 free throws in the half and enjoyed a 25-15 rebounding edge that helped them go to the locker room at halftime with a 22-20 lead.
"In our half-court defense, I thought we did some good things, we made things difficult for them," Batavia coach Jim Nazos said.
But Nazos knew the Bulldogs' bugaboo would eventually be the 24 turnovers they committed.
"I thought their looks were tough looks, but when you turn it over, and you give them looks in transition, those are not tough looks at all," Nazos added.
The frustration for Batavia was illustrated most dramatically when Bulldog point guard Mike Rueffer (11 points) had a chance to tie the score at 55 with about 35 seconds left, but his shot near the basket rimmed out. Rueffer grabbed the rebound and twisted under the hoop for a shot that banked off the backboard, and a tip attempt by Tucker Knox just missed as well.
"I had two chances at it, couldn't get the first one, but got my rebound and felt pressure and tried to reverse it," Rueffer said. "That probably wasn't very smart."
Ultimately, Rueffer knew his tough luck in heavy traffic didn't cost Batavia the game. "You look at those numbers," Rueffer said, pointing to a drawing board in the locker room. "Those 24 turnovers in a game is not going to win you many games," he said.
Micah Coffey led Batavia with 14 points, scoring 10 of those in a fourth quarter that had six lead changes and three ties.
In the end, it was Vaughn's fourth-quarter free throws that made the difference.
"I had to focus on making the free throws tonight, because the last couple of games I have not been shooting free throws that great," Vaughn said. "It was make it, step off the line and gather my thoughts."
The formula worked perfectly for the Southwest Prairie Conference squad in this nonconference clash against an Upstate Eight foe.