Larkin trio too much for East Aurora
The Tuesday night boys basketball game had all the trappings of a showdown between two teams undefeated in their conference.
There were invariable runs by both teams, hard-fought possessions and multiple shots each side would like to have back.
In the end, however, Larkin escaped East Aurora by amplifying one of the oldest -- yet undeniable -- cliches in the sport: game are truly won -- and lost on many other occasions -- at the free-throw line.
Larkin used a dominant run to close out the third quarter and converted 14 of 16 shots from the foul line in the fourth to secure a 65-58 Upstate Eight Conference victory over the Tomcats in Aurora.
"Our coach told us that if we hit our free throws we would win the game," said Larkin senior standout guard Damari Wheeler-Thomas, who had game-highs of 21 points and 11 rebounds.
The North Dakota state recruit drained all 6 of his free throws in the fourth quarter as Larkin twice had to fight off the Tomcats' reducing the contest to a one-possession game in the last 43 seconds.
"He is Division I guard playing high school basketball," Larkin coach Deryn Carter said of Wheeler-Thomas.
But Larkin (15-1), coming off a holiday championship run at Jacobs, would never have secured its sixth consecutive league victory with the supporting performances by Jakob Blakely and Fernando Perez.
The Royals' duo scored 17 points each.
"No disrespect against anyone else who comes in here, but I knew (the Tomcats) were going to play real hard against us," Carter said. "The league is a little top-heavy right now, so it was a really important game. Those guys (from East Aurora) play so hard."
East Aurora won its first eight games of the season, only to suffer three straight defeats at its holiday tournament last week.
The Tomcats (8-4, 4-1) fell behind early as Wheeler-Thomas triggered an 8-0 run to open the game.
The Tomcats, behind guard Jullian Acosta and Nate Robinson as well as twin reserves Nate Robinson and Stephen Dorsey, rallied with a quarter-closing 16-6 run.
Both teams squandered seemingly easy chances in the second quarter as the Tomcats retained a 28-24 advantage at the intermission.
Acosta then opened the third with five straight points to give the Tomcats a 33-24 lead, the largest for either team on the night.
But the Royals returned the favor with the truly game-altering blitz of the evening.
Twenty-five points later, Larkin nearly monopolized the combined scoring with 21 of the points.
Suddenly, the Royals had a 45-37 lead entering the fourth quarter.
Wheeler-Thomas, in a manner of only seconds, had a field goal in transition and proceeded to steal the inbounds pass for another quick deuce.
Blakely and Perez later added field goals to give Larkin the cushion not only never to be relinquished but also a necessary spread to survive one final East Aurora run.
"We have been focusing on rebounding," Wheeler-Thomas said of a season-long key. "My confidence is probably the highest it has ever been, on both ends of the floor. I knew they were going to come after us."
The expected East Aurora final flurry certainly did materialize as the Tomcats scored seven consecutive points on second-chance rebounds spanning two possessions as Savage drained a long 3-pointer to complete a 5-point possession.
But Perez matched the six Wheeler-Thomas fourth-quarter free throws to keep the Tomcats at bay.
Adrian York scored 7 points for the Royals, meaning their top-four players accounted for all but one of the 65 points.
Acosta finished with 17 points, and Savage added 12 for East Aurora.
"We were never out of the game," East Aurora coach Ricky Robinson said. "When it came time for a crucial basket, we didn't complete it. We were there (during the Royals' decisive third-quarter run) and then they just took off."