MINERAL RIDGE - No one else saw the opening but Eoghan Bees.
Mineral Ridge led by one with about a minute remaining in overtime and was passing the ball around the top of the key, just waiting to be fouled.
Bees had other ideas.
Tribune Chronicle / Dave Dermer
Mineral Ridge’s Corey Phillips, left, goes to the basket before being fouled by Springfield’s Eoghan Bees, right.
The speedy Springfield point guard picked just the right time to sneak up on Nathan Palmer, who looked away for a split second to get instructions from his coach. It was just then that Bees poked the ball out of Palmer's arm and raced down the court for a lay up and a one-point lead.
The steal ended up being the most important play in a game full of big moments as the Tigers held on to beat Mineral Ridge, 58-54, in overtime. The victory locked up the Inter Tri-County League, Upper Tier championship for Springfield (12-3, 11-0). The Rams (11-6, 9-2) could have tied for the title with a win.
Bees' gamble to go for the steal was one his coach, Eric Fender, wasn't crazy about when the play was unfolding.
"No," said Fender of whether he felt confident that Bees would be able to execute the daring move. "You're down one in overtime. When do you ever feel confident? But, he's a senior who's been through it. If he sees something, he can go after it. And you know what, sometimes you have to go for a gamble and see if you can get it."
The thievery and ensuing bucket put Springfield up, 55-54, and Mineral Ridge never scored again. The Rams managed just three points in overtime, and they all came on one play as Palmer hit a tough lay up and was fouled. The low scoring was a bit surprising considering the momentum Mineral Ridge took into the extra session. The Rams' Zac Hagy banked in a game-tying 3-pointer with 7 seconds remaining, and a last-second heave by the Tigers was blocked.
Hagy's shot sent the crowd into a frenzy, and the three-point play by Palmer came just a few moments later, adding to the frantic atmosphere. But Springfield kept its cool and scored the final seven points - four of which came from Bees, who said the clutch 3 by Hagy didn't deflate the Tigers.
"When he hit that 3, it was kind of like, 'OK. On to the next play. We've got 4 minutes to go win,' " Bees said. "It was a tie game. All we had to do was win those 4 minutes. It's not a quarter. It's not a game. It's 4 minutes. By one or by 10, we just needed to win that 4 minutes."
Springfield hit two free throws to go up, 57-54, with 20 seconds to go. The Rams tried to free up Hagy, their best 3-point shooter, but he was double teamed, so Corey Phillips, who led Mineral Ridge with 19 points, took a 3 and misfired. The Tigers added another free throw to seal the victory.
"It's kind of been our M.O. all year long - we just don't know how to finish a basketball game yet," said Mineral Ridge coach Chris Kohl, whose team has just one senior. "I think we got a little too tentative (in overtime) - guys were standing around looking to pass the ball. Now, we were delaying the ball a little bit there in overtime, and then, again, not really understanding that you can't have the ball on your hip and be nonchalant with it. You've got to stay low and (pass) out."
The Rams led for much of the second half and entered the fourth quarter up by four. Mineral Ridge was on the verge of pulling away a few times, going on a pair of 7-0 runs in the second and third quarters. But Springfield wouldn't go away, mainly because of the play of senior Jared McTigue. He led all scorers with 20 points, including 12 in the second half.
Palmer scored 18 for the Rams, who host Jackson-Milton on Friday.