Great Falls’ 59-57 boys’ basketball loss to Central on Thursday night was indicative of the issues the Red Devils need to sort out if they’re to develop into a threat come March.
Do-everything senior point guard Nigel Simpson fouled out with 34.6 seconds left and the Red Devils (1-3) leading 56-53. The resulting two free throws pulled the visiting Eagles to within one at 56-55, but Red Devils junior Trey McCrorey stretched the lead to 57-55 when he hit 1-of-2 free throws with 22.7 seconds left. Central (2-1) scored the last four points of the game, though, getting into the lane for an easy bucket to tie the game, before an Eagles guard stepped in front of a lolli-popped pass for an easy breakaway lay up to put the Eagles in front 59-57 with 2 seconds left in the game.
Great Falls threw away a fullcourt pass to give the ball back to Central, but the Eagles turned it over almost immediately, a backcourt violation with 0.8 seconds remaining giving the Red Devils one last shot. Warren Sanders got the ball left wing, but his desperate 3-pointer fell short.
“We’re not playing very smart or very sound,” said Great Falls coach John Smith, who is coaching his 45th season of high school basketball.
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Simpson, who averaged 15 points and three assists per game last season en route to an All-Area second team selection, poured in 23 to lead all scorers. But when the 5-foot-5 senior was on the pine, Great Falls struggled to generate offense, especially at the end of the game.
“When you lose your point guard, your leading scorer at a key time, it puts the pressure really on you,” said Smith, whose team finished 19-7 last season, losing in the second round of the 1A state playoffs. “The game was decided before that. The three games that we’ve lost have all been lost the same way. We just continue to foul. We’re not doing a good job of getting back and getting in a stance, or we try to take a charge from halfcourt, or we reach.”
Simpson scored 11 straight, including three straight 3-pointers, at one point in the second quarter to push the Red Devils into a 27-24 halftime lead. The hosts shot out of the locker room in the second half, McCrorey and Sanders both canning threes to push the lead out to 34-24 and force Central’s William Kelty to call timeout with just 1 minute, 21 seconds expired.
Travay Hatten, who was a force inside for Central and finished with 11 points, scored twice at the rim to scythe into the Great Falls lead. When the Eagles’ guards penetrated into the lane, it forced Great Falls help defenders to slide over, leaving the the Red Devils, who lack height in the frontcourt this season, vulnerable on the boards. Exactly where Hatten killed them.
“They got so many shots in the lane due to our lack of perimeter defense,” said Smith. “We could have out-scored them, but we missed two free throws at key times.”
Simpson canned another 3 to make it 37-28. But Central closed the third quarter on an 11-3 run that made it 40-39, before Hakeem Simpson rattled two free throws over the soft Great Falls rims and in to make it 42-39 headed to the final period.
The fourth quarter lead whipsawed back and forth. With the score tied at 53 and 2 minutes, 12 seconds left, Simpson was fouled and made a pair of freebies to put the Red Devils up two. On the next possession, he feigned a drive into the lane before darting a pass to Chris Culp who was hammered at the rim. With a chance to make it a two-possession game, the football team’s quarterback made 1-of-2, pushing the lead out to 56-53 with 49 seconds left. But when Simpson fouled out on the next play, it all went downhill quickly for Great Falls.