It wasn’t easy, and at times it wasn’t pretty, but the Bellmont Braves got it done Thursday night at Dekalb.
Kord Fuelling swished the biggest free throw of his life with one second left in the game to lift the Braves to a historic 44-43 win over the Barons.
The victory guaranteed the Braves at least a share of the NE8 conference title. It is their first NE8 championship and their first conference title of any kind since the 2005 squad won the Northeast Hoosier Conference crown. The Columbia City Eagles, who handed the Braves their only conference loss in a controversial ending, can earn a share of the title if they beat Leo Friday night.
There were plenty of clutch plays by both teams in the waning moments. With one minute to go, Dylan Velez got fouled on an offensive rebound and hit one of two free throws to put the Braves up by three at 43-40, but Dekalb standout Caden Pettis, who led all scorers with 18 points, responded with a three-pointer from the top of the key to tie it at the 48-second mark.
The Braves took their time on the last possession, eventually calling time out with 13.6 seconds left and then looking for a good final shot. With three seconds to go Fuelling missed a short jumper in the lane, but Dekalb knocked the ball out of bounds with 1.9 left. Bellmont coach Payton Selking called another time out to set up an out-of-bounds play under the Braves’ basket.
The inbounds pass went to Fuelling just beyond the left block, and he drew a foul as he aggressively drove to the hoop.
He missed his first shot, elevating Bellmont fans’ blood pressure a few points and putting the weight of the whole conference season on his second attempt.
“I tried clearing my head out as much as I could,” Fuelling said about his state of mind after missing the first shot. “Whenever I’m in practice we’re always listening to music when we shoot free throws, so there’s always a song that comes to my head, so on that last free throw I just stepped up there, listened to that song in my head, and shot it.”
He didn’t identify the song, but no matter what it is, Bellmont fans would probably award it a Grammy for helping to end the long conference title drought.
Dekalb couldn’t get off a shot in the final second, and the Braves started celebrating with friends and family.
With the victory, Selking accomplished a rare feat: winning a conference title in his first year as a head coach. “I’m very blessed, I’m very lucky, to have great basketball players,” he said. “They make my job really easy. This is not about a conference championship for me; this is a program conference championship—these seniors all the way down to the kindergartners we had in the gym last night. These guys have earned it, they really have. They’ve done everything we’ve asked of them since I got the job in May.”
Selking may say his players make his job easy, but there was nothing easy about the win over a short-handed but inspired Dekalb team on its home floor.
The Barons entered the game with a 6-10 record and just one win in the conference. If that wasn’t enough to make them underdogs to the sixth-ranked Braves, they also played without the services of two injured starters.
It had the makings of a Bellmont blowout, but the Barons had something else in mind. They pushed their 2-1-2 zone toward the perimeter, and that pressured the Braves into a poor 5-for-19 (26%) performance on three-pointers and a subpar offensive effort overall.
“Dekalb does a great job defensively,” said Selking. “That 2-1-2 zone is hard to prepare for. It’s hard to mimic, and they’re so active in it. It’s hard to play against.”
Things seemed to be going according to plan in the first quarter when back-to-back threes by Andrew James and Jack Scheumann gave the Braves an 8-5 lead with 2:28 left.
But Dekalb went on a 9-3 run in the final two minutes—five of the points coming from Caden Rice in the last 50 seconds—to take a 14-11 lead at the first stop.
Scheumann scored six points in the second quarter to lead the Braves to a narrow 12-11 advantage, but that still left them trailing 25-23 at the half.
Early the third quarter, Fuelling and James each hit a free throw to tie the game. James followed with a three-pointer at the 4:40 mark to put Bellmont up 28-25. Fast break layups by Velez and Gavin Krull completed the 9-0 run for a 32-25 lead, and it finally looked like the Braves would pull away from the pesky Barons.
The teams traded baskets—including a rare three-pointer by Velez—to end the quarter with Bellmont up 37-30.
Starting the final period, Krull hit a free throw to extend the lead to eight, but Dekalb went on a 5-0 run to cut it to three. Then it was time for a signature Andrew James clutch play.
When Krull missed a three from the left corner, James was waiting on the right block for the rebound. “Most rebounds from the opposite side come to the weak side,” James said, “and I was like ‘All right, nobody’s blocking me out, I’m going to grab this one.’” He was fouled on the put back and hit both free throws to halt the Barons’ run and put the Braves up by five again at 40-35 at the 4:09 mark.
The Barons outscored the Braves 5-2 in the next three minutes to set up the final 60-second drama.
Scheumann, who led the Braves with 13 points, was ecstatic over the win and the title, something the team had been talking about since last summer. “This is the goal we’ve been working toward all season,” he said. “It wasn’t the prettiest game, but we were able to pull away and I’m so excited. This is awesome!”
Bellmont is now 15-3 overall and ends its NE8 season at 6-1.
The Braves hit 9-of-18 (50%) two-point attempts and 11-of-18 (61%) free throws. Dekalb made a sizzling 11-of-16 (69%) twos, 5-of-14 (36%) threes, and 6-of-8 (75%) free throws.
James scored nine points, Velez eight, Fuelling seven, Krull six, and Job Hoffman one.
The Braves will take on Angola Friday night at the Teepee.