ST. AMANT — The District 5-5A boys basketball race appears destined to become a photo finish.
Thanks to leading scorer Courtney Julien and clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch, St. Amant made up the first-round stagger and pulled even with Catholic High.
Julien keyed a decisive 10-0 run midway through the fourth quarter and along with Nick Griffin, combined to make four straight free throws to lead St. Amant to a pulsating 53-50 victory over Catholic on Friday night at the Gold Dome.
“We told the kids all week this was a big game,” St. Amant coach Travis Uzee said. “They knew it was going to be a team effort. They weren’t afraid of the big game. They were excited more about the opportunity.”
Two free throws from Julien with 14.7 seconds left accounted for the final score, but St. Amant had to withstand one final attempt from Catholic.
Guard Toliver Freeman, who led the Bears with 17 points, got a screen at the top of the key from Grant Scerlor but his 3-pointer with five seconds to go was off the mark. St. Amant’s Crandell Christoff gathered the rebound and held onto until the buzzer sounded, sending St. Amant’s bench and home crowd into a frenzy.
St. Amant (18-9, 5-1) won for the eighth time in its past nine games, avenging its lone 5-5A loss — a 63-53 setback at Catholic (18-6, 5-1) on Jan. 20.
“That was the entire story of the game was we could never put them away,” Catholic coach Mark Cascio said. “We just did not make enough plays to put the nail in the coffin. Credit to them to keep fighting back. They did a good job of getting in the paint late in the game. It was tough to get stops.”
Catholic regained its second double-digit lead (44-34) of the third quarter when Scerlor scored on a cutting layup off a pass from Michael Francioni.
Before the Bears had time to celebrate Griffin quickly worked his way up the floor and drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer, leaving St. Amant starting at a 44-37 deficit.
“Nick has a knack for making tough shots, and he’s made a few,” Uzee said. “That was a big one. It got us right back to being down seven.”
The two teams traded baskets in the first minute of the final quarter until Julien scored seven of his game-high 20 points during his team’s stretch of 10 unanswered points. His 3-pointer with 5:26 left tied the score at 46, and his assist to Christoff led to a go-ahead three-point play with 4:41 left. Christoff scored 11 points.
Catholic, which made 13 of 23 free throws, compounded its problems in the second half with only 4-of-12 shooting from the free- throw line and five misses in the last five minutes.
Not only did St. Amant shoot 59 percent in the second half but two free throws from Griffin, who had 12 points, extended the Gators’ lead to 51-48 before Freeman sliced it back to 51-50 with a layup and quick timeout with 19.6 seconds to go.
“When we need to step up and make a play, that kid just seems to figure it out,” Uzee said of Julien. “It was a team effort. He stepped up in that moment.”