Liverpool guard Charles Pride (5) finds his shot contested by Bishop Ludden’s Monte Johnson (11) in last Sunday’s Section III Class AA semifinal. Pride had 24 points, including six decisive free throws in the final minute, to push the Warriors past the Gaelic Knights 73-69.
Pat Donnelly’s last game coaching the Bishop Ludden boys basketball team involved challenging the undefeated, defending Section III Class AA champions from Liverpool – and nearly beating them.
But with Charles Pride showing remarkable poise at the free-throw line and Kyle Butler coming up with the biggest steal of his career, the Warriors survived the challenge and edged the Gaelic Knights 73-69 Sunday in the sectional AA semifinal at SRC Arena.
Rarely in its previous 21 victories (the big exception its double-overtime win over Henninger in January) had Liverpool faced late-game pressure, yet didn’t flinch when trailing Ludden late in the fourth quarter.
Back-to-back baskets by Pride and Nas Johnson put the Warriors back in front, 67-65, and though Sh’ikem Lee tied it, 67-67, it didn’t stay that way for long.
With 47.3 seconds to play, Pride hit two go-ahead free throws. Then, a wild Ludden scramble on its next possession culminated with Butler making the steal, his 11th of the game.
Pride was fouled again, and once more he was perfect at the line in a one-and-one situation. Down 71-67, the Gaelic Knights cut it to two on Joe Connor’s basket, but Pride clinched it by draining two free throws with 2.2 seconds left.
“I really wasn’t nervous,” said Pride, adding that he shoots plenty of free throws in practice to get ready for these situations and that, in his mind, “pressure makes diamonds.”
It was apparent from the outset that Liverpool would have a far more difficult time with Ludden than it did when it beat the Gaelic Knights 63-47 in late December.
Even if the early pace – quick, frantic – was just to Liverpool’s liking, it had to shake off some early nerves that included some wild outside shots and turnovers.
The response arrived with the score tied 10-10 late in the first quarter. Head coach Ryan Blackwell used a time-out and the Warriors immediately ran off nine straight points in a span of less than 90 seconds.
Another 7-0 run early in the second period created a double-digit lead at 28-17, but Ludden responded well, a mix of strong play on the boards and solid outside shooting (four 3-pointers) pulled the Gaelic Knights within three, the Warriors only up 36-33 at the break,
Many different times this season, when Liverpool felt a threat, it would use the third quarter to dispel that threat, but though it stretched the margin to nine, it could not quite do so this time as, again, the Gaelic Knights fought back, and this time caught up.
When Connor hit a pair of free throws with 3:16 to play, Ludden took a 65-63 lead, quickly erased by a Pride layup, one of 11 points he would score in the fourth quarter on his way to a game-high 24 points, most of them on the foul line when the stakes were highest.
Allen Willmes Jr. had 18 points, with Johnson adding 13 points as Butler, to go with his 11 steals, earned eight points, matching Noah Issakainen.
The Warriors overcame 52 percent shooting from Ludden, who also out-rebounded Liverpool 31-22. Connor, with 20 points, led the Gaelic Knights as Jai Smith got 12 points and nine rebounds. Lee had 10 points and Nic Button got 11 points.
Liverpool will take on no. 7 seed Nottingham in next Sunday’s sectional final at 7:45 at the Carrier Dome. The Bulldogs beat city rival Corcoran 66-56, and have upended no. 2 seed Rome Free Academy (84-31) and no. 3 seed Central Square (52-34) to get this far, though the Warriors beat them twice in the regular season.
In the long run, said Pride, getting this kind of scare might benefit Liverpool in case it faces something similar down the road.
“It shows that we can be beat if we don’t work hard,” said Pride.
On a larger note, Donnelly’s storied coaching career, which included 12 sectional titles and two state championships at his alma mater, concluded with an effort that earned universal praise and a long standing ovation from Ludden’s fans as he left the sideline for the last time.