It was billed as a showdown between two of the top contenders in the NAIA for the 2012-13 hoops season. No one left Walker Arena disappointed with the hard-fought battle they witnessed on Thursday evening before a pair of talented squads.
Lee and Freed-Hardeman meetings usually go down to the wire and that is one reason why the Flames hold only a slim 12-11 in the series after nipping the Lions 85-80. No more than seven points separated the two powers the entire night.
After falling behind in the early going, the Flames rallied last in the first half to squeeze out a 47-45 lead. Both teams were extremely hot from the field in the opening 20 minutes. Lee shot a sizzling 60 percent overall (18-of-30) and made 8-of-14 3-point attempts (57 percent). Freed countered with 53 percent overall (16-of-30) and hit 5-of-10 treys (50 percent). The Lions were also a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line.
As expected, both teams cooled somewhat in the final half, and the Flames still hit 48 percent overall for the evening and 44 percent from behind the arc. Freed closed out the contest with 45 percent overall and 50 percent from behind the 3-point line. It was simply a deluxe shootout despite some rugged defense on both ends.
“We changed it up a little in the second half and went to the dribble-drive,” noted coach Tommy Brown. “Jason Shelton (Freed coach) is so smart, I knew he’d figure out how to slow our offense down in the second half, but we had a new wrinkle for him.”
The switch to the dribble-drive opened up more opportunities for guard Chase Dunn, Will Barnes and Duran Blue. Dunn paced all scorers with 20 points. Barnes was right behind with 19. Blue finished with 13.
Sophomore Corey Billingsley was on fire in the opening half. He nailed four 3-pointers and completed the evening with 14 points. Big Steve Bennett had 12 points and eight rebounds.
“Duran and Will missed some free throws near the end that almost cost us,” noted Brown. “We will need to work on that. You usually can’t get away with that against teams like Freed.”
If a star of the game award was presented it would have to go to a Flame who scored only five points. Sophomore Chad Lee turned in a Dennis Rodman-type show. He grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds and got a hand on at least another half dozen loose balls. “Chad has that special ability to know where the ball is coming off the glass and he usually reacts quicker than the other guys,” said Brown. “He was everywhere tonight on offense and defense and made some amazing plays.”
Freed had four players reach double figures. Chandler Mack displayed his talents with 19 points. Kyle Teichmann tossed in 13 before leaving the game with a knee injury early in the second half. Jonathan Milewski and Reginald Gilmore finished with 10 apiece.
Lee won the battle of the boards, 42-29 and that was a big turning point late in the contest. The Flames totaled 34 points in the paint and got 20 markers off second chances. Freed only turned the ball over 11 times and Lee 14.
“That was a big win for us,” pointed out Brown. “I’ll give the guys a couple days off. We’ve played four games over seven days. Now we got to get ready to begin conference play at Auburn-Montgomery and Mobile next weekend.”