By DOUG ZALESKI
Few plays in basketball generate as much emotion as a stunning basket from the opposite end of the court at the end of a quarter. So it was in the Muncie Fieldhouse on Friday when Central’s Dylan Stafford swished a 45-foot shot from a few feet shy of the halfcourt line as the first quarter expired in the Bearcats’ game against Harrison. The shot gave Central a six-point lead, and then Stafford went off again by hitting three 3-point shots - one in the right corner and two from the left wing - in the first four minutes of the second quarter. The burst propelled Central to a 27-20 halftime lead and allowed it to dictate the pace through the first three quarters of the North Central Conference game. But the Bearcats faltered in the fourth quarter and dropped a 57-55 decision to Harrison.
“It gave us some big momentum,” Central coach Chandler Thompson said of Stafford’s quick start. “We had a lot of energy because we started to play better defensively, we got a lot more rebounds. “But after the third quarter when they hit us in the mouth, we didn’t have the same intensity.”
That was the problem for the Bearcats (8-12). Stafford’s fifth 3-pointer gave Central a 45-41 lead with 7:05 left in the game. But Harrison (15-5) ripped off a 12-0 scoring run right after that to lead 53-45 with 3:55 remaining. “We didn’t do what we’re supposed to do,” Thompson said of the fourth-quarter fizzle. “It was all what we didn’t do. We got rattled, allowed them to get shots, we sent two defenders to one offensive player and left a guy open underneath. We had a lack of communication. “At that stage we got rattled.”
To the Bearcats’ credit they mounted a comeback. Victor Young scored eight points (six on free throws) in the final 2:32 to pull Central into a 55-55 tie with 44 seconds to play.
But Young was called for a foul while knocking the ball away from Harrison’s Jordan Walters on the Bearcat logo near midcourt. Walters made two free throws with 4.4 seconds left to provide the winning margin. Young’s running 17-footer at the buzzer to force overtime was off target.
“Once they took the lead and punched us in the mouth we had to come back, and that’s not what we’re about,” Thompson said. “We’re a team that should fight back. Our team didn’t take the punches well.”
Young led the Bearcats with 18 points. Stafford scored 17 points as he hit 5-of-7 shots from the 3-point line. Central shot 44 percent from the field and made 10-of-11 free throws.
Central will try to sharpen up before the sectional arrives by finishing the regular season at McCutcheon on Feb. 21 and at home against New Castle on Feb. 28.
“Defense has to be our No. 1 focus … and rebounding,” Thompson said.
Central played again without starting point guard KJ Jackson, but Thompson said he should be back in the lineup soon. “The guys who have been playing in his place have played well and that gives them the confidence to know they can do it coming off the bench … or hold the position down and let him come off the bench,” Thompson said.