By Brian Paglia
Union Grove senior guard Ira Hughley knows he's missed his share of free throws in three-and-a-half years playing high school basketball. He'd already missed one when he went to the line with 0.8 seconds left and the Wolverines tied at 73 with heated rival Luella.
So when Luella called timeout before Hughley's final free throw, he was bombarded with advice and consultation by his teammates. Follow through on the shot, they said. Keep your balance at the line, they said. Stay focused, they said.
Union Grove coach Russ Atkins' advice was more succinct.
"Coach (Atkins) said just make the second one," Hughley said. "So I did what he told me."
Hughley returned to the foul line, followed through, kept his balance and made the last free throw to give Union Grove a 74-73 victory against the Lions. The win gave the Wolverines its third straight against Luella, but more importantly seized sole possession of second place in Region 2-AAAAA.
And the difference in the game was at the free throw line. Union Grove (9-3, 4-1) went 34-for-41 from the foul line. Luella made just 9 of 19 of its free throws. When Lions junior guard Seth Smith went to the line with 13.8 seconds left and a chance to give Luella the lead, he missed both free throws. When Hughley went to the line 10 seconds later, he made the only one that mattered.
"That's the story of the game," Luella coach Jamond Sims said.
But Luella (10-3, 3-2) began the game so confidently. The Lions dictated the pace of the game, storming up and down the court come miss or make. By the end of the first quarter, six different Luella players had scored and the Lions led 25-14.
When DeAndre Stroud made consecutive jumpshots midway through the second quarter, Luella led 38-18 and seemed in complete control. Union Grove, meanwhile, seemed helpless on defense and confounded on offense.
Gradually that changed. In the last four minutes of the second quarter, Union Grove increased its intensity on defense and made smarter decisions on offense. The result was an 18-6 run to end the half that cut Luella's lead to eight.
"We finally woke up," Union Grove junior forward Jordan Nelson said. "We decided to play hard, just press forward and listen to coach."
"The first quarter we were trying to play their game," Hughley said. "We can't play their game. But the third and fourth quarter we picked up the defensive intensity."
"I really think the biggest point in the game was midway through the second quarter when we just settled down," Atkins said. "We started getting some stops defensively and starting playing sound. Offensively we started getting some good looks and good shots."
Indeed, five players finished in double figures for Union Grove. Senior forward Chima Onunka led the way with 17, Zavier Preston scored 16 and Nelson, Charles Mann and McKenzie Preston each scored 13.
Jamal Bilal led Luella with 14 points, Aaron Crossland and C.J. Brown each had 11 and Marcus Dallas scored 10.
Luella girls 56, Union Grove 38
The Lady Lions used a swarming defense to cruise to a Region 2-AAAAA victory Friday night.
Karmen Gunn led Luella (7-6, 3-2) with 22 points. Breonna Mosely added 13 and Britney Guy scored 10.
Dafina Chisolm had 10 points to lead the Lady Wolverines (7-6, 1-4).