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ALTAMONT -- The adage free throws make a difference certainly came true Tuesday night in the 84th annual National Trail Conference boys' basketball game. North Clay made 15-of-16 from the free throw line, missing its last free throw with 59 seconds left in the game, while the WSS was 6-of-12 in the 53-45 loss to the Cardinals.

In the first game Effingham St. Anthony pulled away from St. Elmo in the second half winning 65-40.

North Clay's defense held WSS to just 1-of-15 from the field in a span of 12:04 and outscored the Hatchets 19-7 during that time going from trailing 12-10 to up 29-19 with 6:43 remaining in the third quarter.

"I thought offensively, we didn't execute very well especially in the second quarter," said WSS coach Bob Lockart. "They were switching from man-to-man to zone. I thought at times we were not shooting the ball in rhythm. Guys took good shots, but it was not in rhythm. They would look at the basket and then shoot. When the misses get in your head then you struggle."

The Cardinals three-quarter court 1-2-2 and trapping defense helped them hold the Hatchets to just 1-of-13 from the field in the final 10:27 of the first half.

Still, WSS trailed by just eight at halftime, 26-18.

"I told the kids at halftime that we were very fortunate to be only down eight," said Lockart.

North Clay led by 10 on two different occasions, including 29-19 with 6:43 left in the third.

WSS trailed just 44-41 after a three-pointer by Adam Burton with 4:30 remaining.

"We kept digging and had three chances to score when it was a one-possession game, but then they went down and scored (two free throws by Noll and a layup by Luke Fleener with 2:16 left made it 48-41) and that broke our backs," said Lockart.

Clay Tabbert's 12-footer made it 29-21 and a steal and layup by Jackson Miller brought WSS to within six with six minutes left in the third. After a basket by North Clay's Nick Miller, the Hatchets scored five unanswered points and on a three-pointer by Miller and a bucket by Adam Burton. The Hatchets trailed just 31-28 with still 3;24 left in the third. The Cardinal led by eight heading into the final quarter as Noll canned a three-pointer at the buzzer.

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"North Clay has won a lot of games and they executed in their half-court offense and I tip my hat to them," said Lockart. "We have struggled all year long on specialty plays and some time and score possessions that are very important. I am proud of them as they battled back."

A week ago the two teams met with North Clay winning 51-47, snapping a five-game winning streak by the Hatchets.

North Clay, 17-5, was led in scoring by Miller with 16, while Rinehart had 12 and Noll 11.

WSS was led by Miller with 12 points and freshman Gavan Wernsing had 11.

North Clay held the Hatchets without a field goal for 9:02 in the first half going from trailing 12-10 to leading 26-16 before the drought was ended by a basket by Adam Burton on a pass from Beau Bennett with 1:24 left.

The first quarter saw eight lead changes and the largest lead was four points as the Cardinals scored the first four points of the game.

North Clay led 16-14 after the first eight minutes before starting a 10-0 run against the Hatchets who had switched from man-to-man to a 2-3 zone as the Cardinals were driving in the lane for baskets. Blake Noll came off the bench and sank two three-pointers to start the run. Nick Miller and Aleon Rinehart sank two free throws each for the 10-point advantage.

St. Anthony, coached by Stew-Stras grad Cody Rincker, play North Clay Thursday at 7;45 p.m, in the semifinals, while the Hatchets, 13-9, take on St. Elmo/Brownstown at 6;15 p.m. Thursday in the consolation semifinals.

WSS entered as the No. 5 seed, while the Cardinals are the No. 4 seeded team.

The tournament continues Wednesday with South Central taking on Altamont at 615 p.m. followed by sixth-seeded Neoga taking on third-seeded Dieterich at 7:45 p.m. or 20 minutes after the conclusion of the first contest.

Contact Mike Monahan at (217)-238-6854. Follow him on Twitter: @monahanmikejgtc

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