Majestic melodies from the Cleveland concert band…peals of laughter during an all-school play…dozens of elementary voices belting out traditional Christmas carols…
The Cleveland gym has been home to pleasing sounds over the years, but none were sweeter than Ben Holden’s two free throws swishing through the net on Monday.
With 3.3 seconds left against Mankato Loyola, Holden’s baskets won the game 56-54, avenged an earlier season loss against a team ranked second in the state and put the Clippers in first place in the Valley Conference.
“I’ve done it enough….the preparation," said the 6-6 senior. "You just step up and hit them. I put them in, and it felt great.”
Down by as much as seven in the second half, the Clippers tied the game 54-54 with 2:37 left when Holden found Eric Rohlfing all alone under the basket. Neither team scored after that until Holden’s free shots.
Loyola rebounded twice but missed the first half of a one-and-one. A ref said Holden stepped out of bounds on the ensuing possession (it was close), but the Clippers got the ball back with about 35 seconds left when Elijah Sullivan stepped in front of a Loyola pass.
“I just look at the player and read his eyes and dive for the ball,” said Sullivan, who had four steals on the night. “I think we are a little bit better than they are, but they came more ready to play, and they played us really tough.”
Winding down the clock, Isaac Mueller (above) dribbled up top and then drove to the net with 8 and a half seconds left.
It was the right call. As Mueller dove inside, a defender smacked across his arm, and Mueller went to the foul line for a one-and-one.
“Loyola did a good job protecting the paint, but Isaac is a big exception,” said head coach Dan Fredrickson. “Isaac can get into the paint against anybody. He is as good as guard going to the basket and is quick as probably anyone in my 19 years of coaching as far as the electric bang, the jets to get to the basket, even when they changed their defense.”
Mueller’s foul shot caromed off the rim, but Rohlfing alertly stepped inside to clutch the rebound. Without hesitating, Rohlfing tossed the ball to Holden under the net. Sandwiched between two defenders, Holden got bumped on his way up.
“I was just lucky enough to be down there, and they gave me a foul,” Holden said.
After Holden made the two freebies, Loyola got the ball down court but didn’t have enough time for anything but a desperation shot.
“It was another huge win,” said Mueller. “They’re ranked second in state in the coaches’ poll, and we knocked them out. We put them there, so to go one and one with them is great.”
Loyola scored the game’s first basket after a steal. With the Clippers down 4-0, Mueller canned a pair of shots from the charity stripe. Later Holden made one free shot, but with six missed three pointers, Cleveland trailed 8-3 before Mueller cashed in from behind the arc.
“They’re as good of coached team as we play,” Fredrickson said. “Their kids are prepared. They know our sets. They know our calls. It was hard for us to get into our sets and calls and get into a rhythm. Some of it was the noise early and the way they switch their defense. When they switch form man to zone, from man to zone, it was hard to get into a rhythm offensively.”
Later, Alex McCabe found the net from three-point land, and Mueller sunk another three. With the Clippers down 26-25, Sullivan bombed a three pointer, and Mueller scored on a layup after a McCabe steal to put the Clippers in front 30-26 at the break.
Holden and Mueller each had 11 points in the first half, but reminiscent of the St. Clair game, the Clippers were off target on 11 three-point attempts.
“We missed a lot of threes, but getting it to Ben down low and my dribble drives were crazy,” Mueller said.
“Every time we went into Ben, we did a nice job,” Fredrickson said. “He didn’t settle for position; Ben fought for position. He got a little deeper tonight, and that really punished them. But we settled for some threes. We had call after call to get the ball into the paint, but the coaches can’t go out there and pass the ball. It takes the players to facilitate it. ”
The Crusaders came out with a three to start the second half, and Fredrickson quickly took a time out to fix the matchup problem. Fortunately the Clippers saved all five timeouts for the second half.
Holden rebounded and scored, but the Crusaders capitalized on a pair of Clipper turnovers for the next three baskets before Sullivan looped in another three to knot the contest at 35.
But with the game picking up tempo, the Clippers missed a trio of threes in a row after that while the Crusaders scored on a jump shot to take a lead that would last them the next 12 and three quarter minutes until Rohlfing broke the 54-54 tie.
“We were sloppy coming out,” Fredrickson said. “And they did a job with their defensive rebounding. We’d get an ok shot, even some of those threes, as long as the ball goes inside to Ben and kicking it out, we’re ok shooting those shots, but they rebounded them and got out.”
Loyola had three players with four fouls, but no Clipper had more than three.
“The keys to the game: we wanted to make sure we got out on (Loyola’s outside shooters),” Fredrickson said. “We wanted to defensive rebound to make sure they weren’t getting second-chance points. Offensively we wanted to make sure we had a good possession. And the third key was we wanted to make sure we stayed out of foul trouble.”
While Loyola made had one substitution, all five Clipper starters played the entire 36 minutes.
“It was tiring in the first half, but once our fans got loud our adrenaline got going, and we weren’t tired anymore,” Mueller said.
“It was a great job staying on the floor, but the pace of the game wasn’t like it was racehorse, racehorse, racehorse,” Fredrickson said. “Loyola does a good job running and hunting their shots while Saint Clair is gun, gun, gun. So tonight I felt like our bigs were fresh, Ben and Eric, and I wanted Elijah to stay on the floor for spacing.”
Holden led all scorers with 23 points. He also hauled in 15 rebounds.
Fredrickson also pointed to McCabe, the Clippers' unsung hero.
“Al just played amazing tonight too. He does all the little intangible things all the time…the rebounding. I know the fans don’t get how much he helps on defense, as far as the way when guys put the ball on the floor he is right down there after it. He banked in that one three, and I was excited for him, but I don’t care what he does for points because he does so many intangible things out here, and you’ve got to have a glue guy like that.”
The Clippers will have another tough game on Friday when they have a rematch with host St. Clair.
Cleveland 30 26 56
Loyola 26 28 54
Points 56 (Ben Holden 23, Eric Rohlfing 4, Isaac Mueller 16, Elijah Sullivan 8, Alex McCabe 5)
Assists 11 (Holden 2, Rohlfing 3, Mueller 3, McCabe 3)
Rebounds 31 (Holden 15, Rohlfing 5, Mueller 3, Sullivan 3, McCabe 5)
Steals 10 (Holden 2, Rohlfing 2, Mueller 1, Sullivan 4, McCabe 1)
Blocks 2 (Holden 1, Rohlfing 1)
2FG 12-25 (48%)
3FG 5-24 (22%) (Mueller 2, Sullivan 2, McCabe 1)
FT 17-23 (74%)
Alex McCabe twists the ball inside.
The Crusaders didn’t have a good answer for Ben Holden inside.
Eric Rohlfing pulls down a defensive board.
Elijah Sullivan looks for an outlet after stealing the ball with 35 seconds left.