MOUNT CARMEL -- Once leading by as much as 21 in Wednesday night's game against Lincoln Trail, Wabash Valley College was suddenly pushed to the brink, with their backs against the wall as their once sizable advantage had quickly evaporated.
The Warriors (9-6) were doing all they could to weather the storm amidst a thunderous second-half scoring display by the Statesmen (11-2), particularly guard Alex Heath, who scored a game-high 43 points, including 33 in the second half.
Heath's magnificent shooting display continued in the second half as he nailed yet another 3-pointer to push his team to a 71-67 lead with just under two minutes remaining in the contest.
His latest three felt like a dagger to the heart for the Warriors, but with a frenzied crowd and playing in arguably the most electric environment of the season, they fought back.
Sophomore Raekwon Drake battled his way for a quick post score, narrowing the deficit down to just 71-69 with 1:44 remaining and offering a glimmer of hope to the near capacity crowd on hand at the Spencer Sports Center.
Lincoln Trail would expand their lead to three after a made free throw with 1:03 left, but missed an opportunity to stretch their lead to a two possession game. A mistake which would cost the Statesmen dearly.
Down three with the game on the line, Carpenter turned to his most seasoned player, sophomore Marcus Garrett.
"As a coach I'll say that wasn't designed other than we wanted the ball in his hands," Carpenter said. "We trust him enough that he's going to make the right play. . . . I trust guys in those situations who have been here -- like Marcus has been here for two years -- to go make a play in that situation."
Garrett signaled for a ball screen on the top-left key. His defender opted to go under the screen, thinking Garrett might elect to drive and go for a two and Garrett made him pay dearly. The sophomore guard pulled up from about 24-feet out from the top-left key -- all nylon. His basket tied the game at 72-72 with 45 seconds remaining in the contest.
"I just feel like my teammates -- I've been here three years, I feel like I'm a good leader," Garrett spoke of his game-tying shot. "I work on my game a lot so I'm comfortable shooting that shot. I feel like we needed to make a play so I tried to make a play for my teammates."
After forcing Lincoln Trail to turn the ball over twice in the final 45 seconds and one monster chasedown block by Drake to preserve the game, the Warriors had a couple opportunities, each in Garrett's hands. The first, a fadeaway 15-footer which just rimmed out, then a possession with 1.3 seconds left in which Garrett couldn't secure the handle and hoist one final prayer. Thus, we treaded into overtime.
Lincoln Trail struck first in overtime, as they scored off the opening tip to gain a 74-72 lead. Garrett quickly responded however, pulling up for a 16-foot jumper from the elbow to tie the game as he started to catch fire.
Garrett continued his scorching shooting performance down the stretch with an 18-foot jumper to put the Warriors ahead, but Lincoln Trail answered with a pair of free throws on the other end.
The next sequence may have been the deciding factor in the game and thankfully for Carpenter, it went his team's favor.
Sophomore Tony Burks rose for a monster block defensively to prevent a layup, then in transition following his block came through with a crucial and-one. Burks made the free throw and gave the Warriors a 79-76 edge.
The Statesmen would respond with an offensive putback to reduce the lead down to one, but Garrett would find a cutting Jejuan Weatherspoon to push the lead back to three at 81-78 with just over two minutes to go.
Just as they missed a vital opportunity at the charity stripe in regulation, the Statesmen shot themselves in the foot once again in overtime, as they notched an and-one with 2:11 remaining, but couldn't knock down the game-tying free throw.
Burks would nail a couple clutch free throws, followed by an incredible offensive rebound and putback by Drake, and a floater by Garrett to stretch the lead to 87-83 with under a minute remaining.
Despite it being a two possession game now, it was far from over. Heath nailed another big three, reducing the lead down to just one with 17.9 seconds remaining in the ballgame.
But the Warriors continued to capitalize at the charity stripe, and Burks calmly knocked down a pair of free throws to put his team ahead 89-86 in the waning seconds.
Lincoln Trail received one last look from behind the arc, with Heath hoisting away a 25-foot three in the waning seconds, but he couldn't find the bottom of the basket. Garrett secured the rebound and the celebration was on from there.
Following a surprise gatorade bath in the locker room postgame, Carpenter lauded the gutsy play of his team down the stretch to withstand Lincoln Trail's rally, particularly the crucial defensive stops down the stretch.
"We got a lot of deflections, steals, got into passing lanes early," Carpenter said. "Got steals, deflections, blocked several shots at the rim, a couple huge plays toward the end where Tony Burks pinned one off the backboard, Raekwon Drake had a big block. Those don't always get the publicity of a dunk or a 3-pointer, but those are two game saving plays. Karl Jones guarding the inbounder to go to overtime, they couldn't get the ball around him. A bunch of little things like that, we made plays, got steals, made layups, got loose balls that won us this game. Proud of our guys and their effort."
He was also highly complimentary of the Wabash Valley College student section and crowd on hand, as the Spencer Sports Center turned into an absolutely electric environment down the stretch. With a host of Lincoln Trail students and fans in attendance, they won the fan battle and allowed the Warriors to feed off their energy.
"We need to continue that throughout January and February to get the best homecourt advantage we can in the conference," Carpenter spoke of the home court advantage. "We have a chance here with what happened in the other games, we're in a pretty good position right now, we just have to continue to get wins."
"I just feed off the energy from the bench, we had a lot of energy from the bench," Weatherspoon said. "The fans they played a big part too. It was a really loud environment, that helps."
The Warriors were led in scoring by Garrett, who finished with 30 points. They received key contributions down the lineup though, whether it be Drake's 12-point, 14 rebound double-double, or Burks' 15-point night with two crucial blocks in 20 minutes off the bench, a number of guys played vital roles in the victory.
"From November to now it's night and day, but we still have room to grow," Carpenter said. "We just said in the locker room, once they stopped caring about who was scoring, we turned the page. Now they're playing for each other. If you can ever get your team to do that, which most of our teams do, especially at this time of the year, our teams are pretty good. That's when they stop caring about who's shooting the ball, who's getting minutes and just play for each other. It's hard to beat those kind of teams."
They'll need all the rest they can get following such an emotional victory, especially having already played two games this week. Unfortunately they won't receive much time off prior to their next game, a road game against SWIC on Saturday.
"We've got to rest up, we probably won't even do film work before then. They're a good team, they've got a lot of freshmen like us, they've played a tough schedule like we have, they have a Hall of Fame coach, has won over 900 games. They'll be prepared."
WVC -- 40 50 -- 90
LTC -- 22 64 -- 86
Warrior scorers: Garrett 12 4 30, Burks 4 7 15, Drake 4 4 12, Yusuf 5 0 10, Harvey 3 0 9, Weatherspoon 1 4 6, Stanback 1 0 3, Jones 1 1 3, Osborne 0 2 2.
Next up: Saturday, Jan. 11 at SWIC, 3 p.m. tip-off.