McKinley had Catholic High on the ropes. The Panthers forced seven fourth-quarter turnovers and cut the Bears’ lead to two points twice in the final 1:15 of the District 5-5A boys basketball game.

A fast start and a fundamental finish that included four free throws by Toliver Freeman in the final 26.8 seconds gave Catholic all it needed to claim a 50-48 victory Tuesday night at MHS.

“I had to make it count at the end,” Freeman said. “My teammates motivated me. Ethan Treigle got us off to hot start. We kept the lead, and we had to fight for it.

“We knew (the Panthers) were going to come out playing aggressive defense, and we knew we had to be strong with the ball. Last year we lost here twice. We lost in the regular season and the playoffs. We wanted to come out with a vengeance.”

Freeman finished with a game-high 23 points and pulled down seven rebounds for the Bears (16-5, 3-0), the lone unbeaten team in 5-5A. Treigle added 10 points. Tyrese Radford led McKinley with 13 points and Keion Brown added 12 for McKinley (14-12, 1-2), which lost its third straight game.

Freeman’s free throws were the Bears’ only free throws of the night. By contrast, McKinley made 8 of 14, a statistic that stands out in a close game.

Catholic got off to a torrid start in the first quarter, making 10 of its 12 first-quarter shots from the field.

It was an inside approach for the Bears, who got a 3-pointer from Treigle and some nifty inside cuts to the basket from several players, including Freeman. Catholic led 23-13 after one quarter.

The Bears continued their hot-shooting ways in the second quarter, scoring seven of the first nine points. Coach Mark Cascio’s team led 30-15 with 4:25 left in the half, but scored just once more after that.

That scoring drought allowed McKinley to creep closer. The Panthers scored seven of the final nine points in the period but still trailed by 10 points at the half.

“To be honest with you I thought we did a really good job getting in the paint against them,” Cascio noted. “They’ve got length and guys who can protect the rim. When we finally got to the free-throw line, Toliver Freeman did an awesome job knocking all of them down and sealing it for us.”

The Bears continued to hold McKinley at arm’s length in the third quarter. MHS didn’t cut the Catholic lead to less than 10 points until Samuel Sanders made a steal and scored off a layup early in the fourth quarter.

McKinley upped the intensity of its defense. Two 3-pointers by Russell Daniels helped the Panthers get closer. Daniels’ second 3-pointer made it 46-44 with 1:15 left. Another turnover gave the home team a chance to tie it. This time, Daniels’ jumper was just off the mark.

Enter Freeman, who made two free throws with 26.8 seconds and two more at the 12.5 mark.

“We started off a lot slower than we want to start off,” McKinley coach Marvin Dotson said. “That’s something that’s plagued us the last few games. We also can’t seem to make the easy shots. If we make those layups and free throws, it’s a manageable game. We did a bad job, digging ourselves a hole in the beginning. We exerted a lot of energy getting out of that hole.”