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OTTAWA — The battle of the two undefeated Tri-County Conference boys basketball squads didn’t let anyone down in terms of sports drama.
There were clutch 3-pointer baskets, pressure free throws missed and menacing defenses between Henry and Marquette in Thursday’s game in Ottawa.
When the final buzzer sounded and both teams were worn out from the hardwood war, the Mallards raised their hands in a 78-70 victory over the Crusaders to claim the top spot in the conference with a perfect 5-0 TCC record, while Marquette slipped to 4-1.
“This is a great win,” said Mallard senior Nathan Helle, who scored a game-high 25 points. “Losing to Putnam County (in the TCC Tournament final), we got down and we were sad. But coming out and facing a challenge like this, especially Marquette at their home place where you know it’s always a tough crowd, was good for us. It was a good task to see where we were at mentally after the loss to Putnam County.”
Both teams came into Thursday’s contest with something to prove as Marquette suffered a 74-30 defeat to Seneca on Tuesday.
After trading runs and leads throughout the entire contest — including quarter-ending shots by Helle (twice) to tie and to take a lead, plus three consecutive long-range daggers from Marquette’s Patrick Killelea — the squads were gridlocked at 63 with 5:30 left in the fourth quarter.
“It was back-and-forth,” Henry coach Steve Self said. “I’d look up at the scoreboard one time and it would be 51-50. I look up two minutes later and it was 63-61. It went that fast it seemed like.
“We knew it was going to be tough coming in here to play. They always play better here, they’re at home. We actually wrote that on the board before we came here — mental toughness.”
A Deven Guelde layup that made the score 63-63 was the first basket of a 9-0 Henry run.
The rally eventually proved to be the deciding factor of the game as the Crusaders (11-9, 4-1 TCC) couldn’t score basket-for-basket with Henry down the stretch, even though the Mallards struggled to make free throws to close out the game.
Henry (18-3, 5-0 TCC) shot 9-for-25 from the free throw line.
“Down the stretch, those big shots added up,” Marquette coach Mike McDonald said. “Good game, but I wouldn’t hate to be on the other side of it either.
“The biggest problem was we didn’t take care of the ball. We went down a stretch from four minutes to 2 ½ minutes where we made a couple costly turnovers. Against a team like Henry, you have to make the most of your possessions or they’re going to make you pay for it.”
Nine players finished with double-digit scoring in the game.
In addition to Helle’s 25 points, Jake Schlosser added 17 points for Henry, while Guelde chipped in 16 and Ryan Condit had 11.
Killelea, Collin McLean, Tyler Verona and Michael Sypniewski all scored a team-high 12 points for MA.
Verona knocked down a 3-pointer to cut the Henry lead to 72-68 with 58.1 seconds left, but Henry took control as time winded down as it closed out the game with a couple more Guelde layups and a Kyle Henderson free throw.
“I’m proud of the guys” McDonald said. “We came to play and hopefully we’ll get a shot at Henry in the (Class 1A Marquette) Regional (at Marseilles).”