MAQUOKETA — The Central DeWitt boys basketball team was not expected to win Thursday night’s Class 3A Substate semifinal.
Not against No. 5-ranked Maquoketa, who finished the season 17-2. Especially not on the Cardinals’ home floor, which was surrounded by a couple hundred raucous spectators.
So when the Sabers rattled off a 10-0 run to take a two-point lead in the lasting minutes of the third quarter, an eery hush fell over the red-soaked crowd while the impressively dense turnout behind the visiting bench roared with delight.
But a string of clanked free throws and missed shots down the stretch paired with Maquoketa’s relentless scoring attack to create the perfect storm for the Sabers, who ultimately fell 55-47 to mark the end of the 2018-19 season.
Central DeWitt coach Grady Gallagher admitted he felt uncharacteristically emotional after the loss, as it signaled the final game on the hardwood for a talented senior class.
“I just told them that I was proud of them,” Gallagher said. “It was not a game we were supposed to win but we played our butts off and it was close to the very end... we gave them our best shot and that’s what it is all about.”
After a tightly-contested 14 minutes to open the game, Maquoketa flashed a sample of the reason it has been nearly unbeatable this season. Abe Becker and Nicholas Ehlinger sunk back-to-back 3-pointers to give the home team a seven-point cushion at halftime.
But the Sabers weren’t ready to roll over. Trailing 28-22 with five minutes remaining in the period, Devin Hurdle and Tucker Kinney scored consecutive buckets to trim the Sabers’ deficit to just two points.
Then it became interesting. Drew Kueter scored and Kinney sunk a 3-pointer to cap the Sabers’ stretch of 10 unanswered points, stirring the well-traveled section from DeWitt into a frenzy after snatching the lead.
But an unbothered Maquoketa team battled back to enter the fourth quarter with a 36-34 lead and rode the wave of a deafening atmosphere in critical moments.
The Sabers, possibly affected by the noise, missed their first five free throws of the fourth quarter and finished below 50 percent from the charity stripe — points that could have slowed Maquoketa’s rising momentum.
“I’m jealous of each of them because playing in [an atmosphere] like that is something they will never forget,” Gallagher said. “I will never forget coaching in it.
“At the free throw line, I think our guys were a little bit too uptight but that is part of being in games like this.”
Central DeWitt trailed 44-43 with 2:40 left in regulation but Maquoketa answered with four straight points and ran 30-plus valuable seconds off the game clock to hold a four-point advantage with less than a minute left.
The Cardinals sunk their free throws and Kinney missed a pair of desperation 3-pointers in the closing moments to seal the outcome and push Maquoketa within one game of the state tournament.
Zach Hinkle, Hurdle and McAleer each scored eight points to lead a balanced Sabers scoring attack, who had seven different players score.