MICHIGAN CITY | No fourth-quarter baskets and 56 percent free throw shooting usually spell doom.
Not for Merrillville on Friday.
The Pirates didn't make a field goal in the fourth quarter and hit just 28 of a whopping 50 free throws overall, nearly frittering away a 12-point lead, but hung on to elude Michigan City 66-61 in the Class 4A Michigan City Sectional semifinals.
In the opener, Valparaiso (18-4) never trailed, blowing out frigid Chesterton (13-9) in the fourth quarter for a dominant 56-34 victory.
"Actually, we've been really good (at the line) lately," Pirates coach T.J. Lux said. "If we had made 38, we would've been fine. We've got to make better decisions with the basketball. We knew it was going to be a dogfight the whole way through. Michigan City's been playing a lot better. They played their hearts out."
Merrillville (19-3) used a 14-0 run that began after it trailed 44-42 in the third and ended with it up 56-44 early in the fourth.
"We just told them to make a conscious effort to be aggressive," Lux said. "We had a stretch of good balance going inside. We moved the ball around and got to the rim."
His team battling foul trouble, notably leading scorer Ryan Taylor, M.C. coach John Boyd found himself with a young group on the floor against the veteran Pirates in the pivotal stretch. City turned the ball over nine times in the third quarter.
"I question myself, should I have kept guys in the game," Boyd said. "We got a couple quick fouls and they got loose on us. We had a freshman and a sophomore out there and the experience of Merrillville got to us."
Thanks to Merrillville's foul line struggles, the Wolves (10-12) roared back and actually had a shot at a tie when A'Seante Clark came up with a steal with 20 seconds left. He got a clean look at a 3 from the corner but it rimmed off. The Pirates were still up three when Jamard Owens missed two free throws, but he ran down the second, and knocked down the clinchers at 6.9 seconds.
"We had an opportunity. That's all you can ask for," Boyd said. "To beat good teams, you've got to do the little things."
With Jake Raspopovich and Jelani Pruitt saddled by fouls, Zoran Talley again paced the Pirates, scoring 23 points. Darion Williams added 14 and B.J. Jenkins 11.
"B.J and Zoran really stepped up and made some big plays," Lux said.
In the opener, Valpo broke open a low-scoring struggle with three 3s in the span of 1:03. Brody Wilson drilled one at the end of the third quarter, then he and Justin Osburn connected to start the fourth, spiking a 26-20 lead to 15.
"I've said all along we're pretty damn good defensively," Vikings coach Joe Otis said. "The last two games, (Chesterton's) scored 70 and 85. I credit (assistants) Ben Lieske and Brent Kimmel for putting together a really great scouting report. I'm proud of them and really proud of the kids for executing it. I wasn't afraid of a low-scoring game, but they've scored so many points lately, we wanted to take them out of their rhythm and see how they reacted."
In two words, not well. Chesterton shot 27 percent, including 5 of 21 deep. Matt Holba and Corey Rusboldt each scored 10, though Holba missed six of eight free throws.
"We just didn't shoot the ball well," Trojans coach Tom Peller said. "We've been in a good rhythm, but we came out a little tight. There was a little different demeanor. I wasn't upset with the shots we took. Those are shots we usually make. You don't make shots against (Valpo), you're in trouble. They're just so good fundamentally. They understand defensive angles."
In a game where John Mosser managed just two points, the Vikings got 15 from Quentin Palmer, 14 from Tyler Doane (11 in the fourth, all in the second half) and 11 from Osburn. Valpo went 21 of 28 at the line to Chesterton's 3 of 10.
"Palmer got us out of the gate," Otis said. "You might as well go ahead and give Osburn the Superman's cape. He just makes a lot of stuff happen, particularly on defense."