Neil McNeil escapes with one-point win

[attach]6704[/attach]In a battle for first place, a missed free throw became the difference between victory and defeat, as Etienne Brule lost a double-digit lead and the game 65–64 to the Neil McNeil Maroons.

Brule’s Tony Kuele was at the line with less than two ticks left on the clock. If he made both of his free throws he’d send the match to overtime. He made the first, but his second attempt veered to the right, sealing Brule’s fate.

“It just shows how we have to come out more defensively on the perimeter, but we had this,” Kuele said.

A lot was at stake, and emotions were high for both squads, as the Feb. 4 match was a key match up that would determine the division winner and seedings for the upcoming playoffs.

Aggressive basketball was on display at both ends of the court. Brule, lead by their backcourt of Guedei Korei Diimi and Tony Kuele, showed strong presence around the basket early on, creating points off the dribble. Brule eventually closed the first quarter with a 23–10 lead.

“They were pretty tough on defense,” Neil McNeil’s Jayden Frederick said. “They played physical.”

The Maroons, looking to respond quickly or risk an embarrassing defeat, showed substantial improvement in the second quarter. Their scorers, Jeremiah Dulla and Jayden Frederick, showed brilliance off the dribble. Brule seemed to do too much on offense, succumbing to the Maroons’ full court press by opting for flashy play instead of simple passes.

[attach]6705[/attach]“We were good creators, but we needed to work on our post moves and inside,” Kuele said.

The second quarter also featured three technical fouls, as the physical intensity was taking its toll on both squads.

“The refs, too, were frustrating,” said Frederick, who drew a technical for the Maroons. “I didn’t do anything to get it.

“I got the foul, and I said that it wasn’t a foul, and he gave me a technical.”

The game had numerous shifts in momentum. The third quarter was a feeling-out process, but Brule reclaimed of their first quarter brilliance, etching out a seven-point lead going into the fourth.

The fourth quarter was a nail-biting joust. Neil McNeil’s Carlo Pantaleon was dynamite with his deadly long-range jumpers. Brule’s defense, care of blocks from Karim Moussaoui, was imposing.

“We’re just trying to focus, try to take every game serious, go with defence first then offence, because defence leads to easy offence,” Moussaoui said. “We still need to work on some stuff, but we’re doing pretty good as a team compared to last year.”

With the game was tied 63–63 with less than a minute remaining, and a home crowd begging for victory, the Maroons’ Frederick fouled Kuele in the last few seconds — to no avail.

Both squads are showing tremendous improvement compared to last season, taking advantage of veteran leadership that had endured some losing.

“Last year, we were a younger team, not as disciplined as we are this year,” Moussaoui said. “This year, we’re working more as a team in passing, getting open looks to every single player because we all have talent on this team.”

The Maroons victory clinches first place in the TDCAA East division, completing full turnaround for the squad. Last season, they were winless in 12 games.

“You can either do two things from [a winless season], you can either come in strong or come in weak and not ready to play,” said Neil McNeil’s Miko Sarsonas. “We came out and worked hard this whole season.”