ATTICA - It wasn't very often during the second half that Fremont St. Joe wasn't in the driver's seat of its game against Seneca East. But with just over two minutes left in the game, Seneca East converted a four-point play to cut what was once a 24-point lead to 11.
A seemingly smooth trip to the finish line now had a speed bump in the middle of the road.
Then Ben Linke took the wheel and began to drive.
Linke took an inbound pass and drove straight to the basket. Then he did it again, and again, and again. The St. Joe junior scored nine consecutive points, all on straight drives to the basket and resulting foul shots, and the Streaks cruised to an 86-67 win in the Midland Athletic League opener for both teams.
"I thought we played well," Linke said after his 25-point night. "I thought we did well against their defense, really knew how to work against their defense. We knew how to attack; we attacked real well.
"We felt like they were leaving gaps. So we just took it too them as hard as we could."
St. Joe coach Jonathan Will said Linke's run was made possible by his team's play on the defensive end.
"When we got stops, we got into transition and that was the key at the end," Will said. "I think we went on a (9-0) run and everything was a transition layup. It starts at the defensive end. If we can get a stop there, we get out and run a little bit. I think we're good enough athletically to do that. You just got to get some stops. If we would've done our job sooner, the lead wouldn't have gotten to 11. Credit to Seneca East, they battled, they never quit. That's a product of their coach."
But Will was less than pleased with his defenses effort overall on the night. The St. Joe coach said he's still looking for consistency on that end of the floor.
"Defensively we're a little farther behind from where we'd like to be," he said. "Offensively I'm pleased with where were at. We have to be able to sit down, when the time comes, sit down in our man-to-man and get stops. Tonight we did it in spurts, but not good enough for our standards."
Most of Will's defensive headaches came from trying to slow down Ethan Caudill. Caudill had game-highs in points and rebounds, pouring in 33 points while pulling down 10 rebounds.
"I think he was a little disappointed with the way he played last week so he's trying to make up and show us he can play better than he did," Seneca East coach Joe Nowak said after his team dropped to 0-3. "So we're definitely happy with that."
"We did a pretty good job on shutting their main guys down, except for (Caudill) ... Caudill did a real good job," Linke said. "Other than Caudill, I thought we shut them down. I thought we did well."
Hunter Saylors backed Caudill with 18, 12 of which came during the Tigers' rally in the fourth quarter. But those two combined for 76 percent of the Seneca East offense.
St. Joe (2-0) built a lead as big as 24 points at the third quarter and led 68-47 heading in the fourth. Seneca East got a basket from Adam Hall and a 3-pointer from Jack Daniel early in the fourth, but Saylors was the catalyst as the Tigers clawed back in the game. He was fouled while hitting a 3-pointer from the top of the key. He knocked down the ensuing foul shot, cutting the lead to 75-64 with 2:02 to go. But that was as close as Seneca East could get.
"We made some mental mistakes down the stretch there," Nowak said. "We cut it to 11, then gave up some transition buckets. Then it kind of ballooned up again, gave them a couple and-1s. (Our kids) got a little deflated after they pushed it back up there again, but I was very happy to see them fight back and cut it to 11. It's a good thing in my eyes that I saw them fight back like that."
While Linke drove home the win, Lucas Michael got St. Joe off the starting line by scoring all 13 of his points in the first half. In the second half, it was the Streaks' inside game that let them pull away. Hunter Harrison (18 and 6) and Ryan Williams (17 and 8) combined for 35 points and 14 rebounds. Harrison scored 12 of his points in the third quarter when St. Joe lead began to escalate.
"They work hard. Ryan's a three-year letterman for me, Hunter's in his second year for me. They know what we expect on the offensive end," Will said. "Defensive end, they hold their own. Tonight we knew we were facing two physical post guys inside in (Adam) Hall and (Josh) Waggoner, and I thought our guys did a good job there."
"It's awesome. We got so many people to depend on," Linke said when asked how helpful his teammates in the post are. "As far as rebounds, as far as when people collapse we can drop it to them, it makes everything a lot easier."
It may not have turned out to be easy, but it all helped the St. Joe drive back to Fremont with the win.