BY MATTHEW CRESS
There was never any question that the ball was going inside to Hunter Crace.
Stopping him was another matter entirely.
With his team down 50-49 with 16.3 seconds left to play and facing its last chance, Charlestown point guard Jordan Knoebel fed it to Crace, who was sandwiched between two North Harrison defenders.
Like he had all night, Crace spun away and nearly broke free for a layup when the Cougars’ Joseph Hinton reached in to poke the ball away, fouling Crace in the process.
The 6-foot-3 junior went on to deliver at the foul line, giving Charlestown its second lead of the fourth quarter and the only one it would need, as the Pirates hung on for a 53-50 victory over visiting North Harrison. The win broke Charlestown’s five-game losing streak and gave it its first Mid-Southern Conference triumph of the season.
Crace’s late heroics also continued what has been a good week on the court for Charlestown, which also is hosting the Class 3A girls’ basketball sectional this week. The Pirates upset Brownstown Central on Tuesday night and will meet Scottsburg in the semifinals tonight.
“It feels really good when you’ve struggled through the season like we have,” said Charlestown coach Sean Smith, who picked up his first MSC win since last Feb. 15, when the Pirates defeated Salem. “It’s really nice to see the kids play with a lot of passion and heart. They were very coachable and committed to playing the way we needed to, grinding it out on offense and getting good shots.”
That meant a large dose of Crace, who finished with 24 points and nine rebounds, while going 6-of-6 from the foul line.
The connection between Crace and 6-foot-2 sophomore Tanner Wesp was particularly fruitful for the Pirates, as Wesp scored 11 points and consistently punished the Cougars with slick interior passes to Crace or at the free-throw line, where he went 5-of-7.
It was Wesp and Crace who got the Pirates (3-11, 1-6 MSC) in position to notch the victory by scoring 11 of the last 13 Charlestown points and leading the Pirates back from a 48-42 deficit with only 1:28 left to play.
North Harrison (7-9, 2-5) left the door open by missing four straight free throws in the final minute and Wesp struck the biggest blow by spinning into the lane, splitting two defenders and drawing a foul while laying it in with 29.9 seconds on the clock. The subsequent free throw gave Charlestown a 49-48 edge.
That didn’t last for long.
North Harrison caught a break when Cory Smith lost the ball driving through the lane, where it was picked up by Cameron Mink, who laid it in to give the Cougars the 50-49 advantage and set up Crace’s free throws.
After Crace put the Pirates on top again, Smith again tripped on a drive through the lane, only this time he was called for a double dribble. Charlestown inbounded to Jamal Long, who calmly knocked down two free throws with :00.4 seconds remaining. Still, the Pirates had to sweat out a desperation heave by Smith, whose half-court shot banged off the backboard to the left of the rim.
It was a fitting end to an up-and-down game that saw neither team take control.
After Charlestown forced its way out of an early 8-2 hole to pull within 10-9 — with seven straight points from Crace and Wesp — the rest of the contest was played within a four-point spread until the Cougars stretched the lead to six before the final Pirate rally.
The third period alone saw eight lead changes, as well as the emergence of Long. The sophomore guard had seven points in the frame, including a three-point play on a fierce drive through the lane. That gave Charlestown a 34-32 lead, but North Harrison closed the third period on a 6-2 run, which included a buzzer-beating baseline jumper from Hinton to enter the final period up 38-36.
It was the second quarter when Crace really started to heat up around the basket, where he delivered eight points to help Charlestown go into the intermission with the score knotted at 24. Each of Crace’s baskets came on an assist from a different teammate, which is a bit of a change for the center, who enjoys deferring to his teammates.
“Hunter sometimes wants to pass it too much,” Sean Smith said. “He’s a great passer. But tonight he got the right mix of looking for his shot and looking for his teammates. He had a tremendous game.”
Long also found double figures for Charlestown, finishing with 14 points, while Wesp made his presence known all over the court, as he had six rebounds and four assists.
Cory Smith led the Cougars with 14 points. He was joined in double figures by Mink, who hit all four of his attempts from the field and scored 10 points.
The Pirates won’t have long to celebrate their first conference win of the season, as they will travel to Eastern on Saturday afternoon. Coach Smith hopes the confidence earned on Thursday will translate to a new streak — and a new start.
“The kids really stayed focused and I’m very proud and pleased with their effort,” he said. “It was a great team effort and they found a way to win. We really needed this one.”
CHARLESTOWN 53, NORTH HARRISON 50
N. Harrison 10 14 14 12—50
Charlestown 9 15 12 17—53
North Harrison (7-9, 2-5 MSC): Joseph Hinton 4, Cory Smith 14, Austin Nolot 7, Alex Flock 6, Chandler Jenkins 9, Cameron Mink 10.
Charlestown (3-11, 1-6): Jamal Long 13, Jordan Knoebel 3, Tanner Wesp 11, Hunter Crace 24, Tristan Chester 2.
3-point field goals: North Harrison 4 (Flock 2, Smith, Nolot); Charlestown 1 (Knoebel).
Rebounds: North Harrison 17 (Smith 5); Charlestown 21 (Crace 9).
Assists: North Harrison 9 (Hinton 4); Charlestown 14 (Wesp 4).
Steals: North Harrison 8 (Nolot, Flock 2); Charlestown 4 (Knoebel 2).
Blocked shots: North Harrison 1 (Flock); Charlestown 0.
Turnovers: North Harrison 9, Charlestown 15.
Free throws: North Harrison 8-15, Charlestown 14-18.
Fouled out: none.
Technical fouls: none.