MERRILLVILLE | Merrillville struggled from the free throw line during the first three quarters on Friday night, but the Pirates found their touch at the line in the fourth quarter.
The Pirates made 14 free throws in the final quarter and scored their last 13 points of the game at the line as they held off a charge from Portage and beat the Indians 59-55 to get their first Duneland Athletic Conference win of the season.
Merrillville (2-9, 1-2), which was just 4-of-8 at the line in the first three quarters, was 14-of-16 in the fourth.
“Free throw shooting hasn’t been one of our strong suits,” Merrillville coach T.J. Lux said. “We talk a lot about it.
“Obviously we practice it a lot and put them in different situations in practice, but it just comes down to being mentally tough enough to step up and make free throws.”
Portage took its first lead of the game with 40 seconds to play on a 3-pointer in the corner from Jacob Bearss.
On the following possession, Merrillville’s Marcel Cherry drove the length of the floor and was fouled. He made both free throws to put the Pirates in front 53-52 and give them the lead for good.
Portage (7-7, 0-3) came up empty on its next two possessions, and James Wright and Demetrious McKeethen each made two free throws to stretch the lead to five.
Jordan Collazo hit a 3-pointer to get the Indians within two with 4.5 seconds left, but D.J. Wilkins made two foul shots to ice the game.
Wilkins scored a game-high 14 points to lead the Pirates. McKeethen, who was 5-of-5 at the line in the fourth quarter, added 12 points and 10 rebounds. Jarius Stevens and Cherry were also in double-figures.
“We really had guys step up and make plays,” Lux said.
Collazo scored seven of his team-high 13 points in the fourth for Portage. Michael Lattanzi added 11.
The Indians trailed by as many as 12 in the first half and kept chipping away at the lead until a 9-3 run gave them a 52-51 lead.
“We fell behind early because we weren’t able to score,” Portage coach Rick Snodgrass said. “We fought back, and then we don’t hit key shots when we want to.”
The Pirates were 18-of-38 from the floor for the game, while Portage was 21-of-51.