UTICA — Combined, the Utica and Highland boys basketball team have just one senior. But youth and inexperience didn’t stand in the way of a thriller Saturday night.
Highland freshman Gavin Hankins drilled a jumper from the left wing at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
Then, freshman Zach Heckman drove the baseline for the go-ahead basket with 1:16 left in overtime to help Utica outlast Highland 48-43 in non-league play.
“My teammate (Sean McCutcheon) set me up with a good pass on the baseline and I saw it was a little to my right and I took it,” Heckman said.
Highland took most of the clock off on the ensuing possession, before Elijah Larue stole a cross-court pass.
“We gambled on the pass and didn’t have help-side (defense on the go-ahead basket),” Highland coach Chris Powell said. “It’s a lot of growing pains with such a young team. We’ve gotta understand time and score a little better. Yeah, we played good defense in the full-court and it gave us a chance. We’ve just gotta learn.”
Larue hit one of two free throws and McCutcheon rebounded a miss in the final seconds on the other end and added the final free throws with a couple of seconds left to finish off the drama for Utica (4-6).
“We don’t have a senior on the team, so we are learning every single day,” Utica coach Brian Radabaugh said. “It’s been fun to teach these guys and see us grow. We’re making tremendous strides. We’ve just gotta keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
Heckman scored four points during a 9-2 run to close the first half. He capped the rally with a driving score in the final seconds to give Utica a 19-12 at the break.
That was a key part of the game for Powell because Highland rallied to open the second half. Jordan Bellamy scored a pair of baskets sandwiched around a Wyatt Grove 3-pointer early as Highland closed within two.
Then, Hankins stole the ball at midcourt and laid it in through contact. He missed the ensuing free throw, but Bryant Marcum stole the ball on the rebound and was fouled scoring the go-ahead basket. His free throw gave the Scots a 27-24 with 2:43 left in the third.
Highland turned it over a couple of times down the stretch and Utica had a 28-27 lead before Bellamy hit a step-back 3 at the buzzer to give the Scots a 30-28 lead through three quarters.
“We have to exhaust so much energy and effort to get back into the game that we could only stretch it (so far),” Powell said. “That (15-5) run goes from down seven to up three. If it’s a two-point game at halftime, that run puts you up eight.
“It’s just little things like that … understanding how every play early in games can change the momentum one way or another.”
Hankins hit another triple to push Highland’s lead to five. But after a pair of Larue free throws for Utica, the game stayed a one-possession game until the final possession of overtime.
Larue drove for a basket to give Utica a 42-41 lead with 1:01 left in regulation and McCutcheon added a free throw with 21.2 seconds left to set up Hankins’ buzzer-beater.
Larue had 13 points, six rebounds and a pair of steals; Heckman added 12 points, three assists and three boards; Collin McCullough chipped in 11 points and McCutcheon finished with seven points, eight rebounds and a pair of assists to lead Utica.
“We kind of just synched up as a team,” McCutcheon said. “Instead of just playing as five players on the court — we played as one team. That really helped us out.”
Bellamy had 16 points, six rebounds and three steals and Hankins and Marcum each had nine points and four steals to lead the Scots (1-7). Marcum also finished with five rebounds.
Both teams have non-league opponents scheduled next. Highland plays at home against River Valley on Tuesday night with a scheduled tip-off time of 7:30 p.m. Utica is back in action Wednesday night at Licking Heights, which is scheduled for 7:15 p.m.
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