Delphos St. John’s Curtis Geise wrestles the ball away from a Troy Christian defender in the regional final game at Kettering Friday evening. The Blue Jays fell just short in the contest, losing 51-49. (Times Bulletin/Tom Morris)
Delphos St. John’s Curtis Geise wrestles the ball away from a Troy Christian defender in the regional final game at Kettering Friday evening. The Blue Jays fell just short in the contest, losing 51-49. (Times Bulletin/Tom Morris)

BY JIM METCALFE

Times Bulletin Correspondent

sports@timesbulletin.com

KETTERING - When two teams are as closely-matched as Delphos St. John's and Troy Christian, you can expect a battle to the end. That is what the near-capacity crowd at James S. Trent Arena on the campus of Kettering Fairmont High School got Friday night in a Division IV Regional final.

The game came down to a late foul call on the Blue Jays that gave the Eagles' Grant Zawadzki a chance to win the game at the free-throw line and lift the Eagles to a 51-49 heart-stopper over the blue-and-gold.

Troy Christian (26-2) advances to take on Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph's at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Division IV State semifinals in Columbus.

The Eagles had battled back from a 10-point deficit in the third period to only trail 39-38 to start the fourth quarter. Troy continued its rally into the fourth, using an 8-1 spurt to tie the biggest Eagles lead of the game - 46-40 - on a deuce by Spencer Thomas at the five-minute mark.

Back came the Jays (20-6), jump-started by a triple from junior Ryan Koester. Sophomore Andy Grothouse hit a tough layin, followed by two singles to give the Jays a 47-46 edge.

Logan George hit his only bucket and points of the night at 3:19 to give the Eagles the edge by one, only to have St. John's senior Ryan Buescher a transition drive seconds later to give the Jays their last lead at 49-48. Those would turn out to be the last points of the 2012-13 season for the Jays.

Down the stretch, St. John's turned it over twice, with the Eagles tying the game at 49 on one-of-two free throws by Grant Zawadzki with two minutes remaining. The Jays missed two chances at the rim in the next 30 seconds and the Eagles got the miss. Running the clock down, Troy Christian got the ball into the hands of sophomore point guard Zawadzki.

With time winding down, he got a ball screen near the top of the key and went up for a shot and was ruled to have been fouled by the Jays' defender while shooting a three to the consternation of the Jays' partisans. Zawadzki sank two out of the three with 3.0 seconds showing on the clock.

The Jays took a timeout and set up a play. Going the length of the floor, the inbounds went to Buescher at the free-throw line, who passed ahead to senior Curtis Geise. His 40-footer from the right side hit the front of the rim but caromed away as time expired.

"It's a rough way to lose a game. I don't disagree with the foul call; he got him on the arm," St. John's coach Aaron Elwer explained.

"At the same time, we set up a play we work on during late-game situational practice and felt we ran it pretty well. It just didn't go. That was kind of the story of our shooting all night. I felt we executed our offense most of the night well and got a lot of quality shots that we'd been hitting the last couple of months. They just didn't go down. That's basketball."

Troy Christian coach Ray Zawadzki got just what he wanted, too.

"Our goal is always to protect the ball, and when St. John's sat back in their zone late, we decided to hold it," he explained. "As time drained down, we just decided to put the ball in Grant's hands. He makes good decisions with the ball, either getting a good shot for himself or passing it to an open teammate. We got that ball screen and that freed him up enough to force a foul."

The Jays had trouble dealing with the quick dribble-drive offense of the Eagles in the early going as Troy Christian got off quickly to an 11-4 edge. The Jays began to get a handle on things defensively and held the Eagles to a free throw for the rest of the period.

On the other end, St. John's rallied with a 9-1 spurt to close the stanza to lead 13-12.

"We were concerned with their quickness offensively coming in and they gave us trouble early. We had to adjust to it and we did, as I knew the kids would," Elwer said.

The Eagles hit a pair of early long balls in the second stanza as part of an 8-1 spurt to take a 20-14 edge halfway through the stanza. Again, the Jays had the answer, running off an 11-2 span in the next four minutes to get a 25-20 edge on his three-point play just before halftime. Salazar hit a jump hook in the paint off a nice set to get his team within 25-22 at the half.

The Jays seemed on the verge of taking command in the third, working their way to the largest margin of the game, 32-22, on an inside basket by senior Seth Bockey, forcing the Eagles to call a time out with just under five minutes left in the period. Troy Christian responded well, closing to 39-38 at the end of the third.

"We knew even up 10 it wasn't over. You don't get this far without having a tough mental attitude. Give credit where credit is due, they didn't fold," Elwer added. "That's a very tough locker room in there right now; there are 14 guys that are hurting badly because they knew what was at stake. We were a step away from the ultimate goal of a season. We lose the four seniors (Geise, Buescher, Bockey and Cole Fischbach) and it's not just as players, they are fine kids. They've put in a lot of time as a great example for our younger guys."

Coach Zawadzki pointed to that key rally as the microcosm of the season.

"That is the way we've done it all year. We have a never-give-up mentality," he added. "We kept reminding the kids about the things we build our program around and they showed a lot of toughness there. St. John's was one team I didn't want to play here. I have so much respect for the MAC and their program."

Troy Christian dropped in 18-of-42 shots for 42.9 percent and 10-of-13 free shots for 76.9 percent.

St. John's hit on 17-of-48 from the field for 35.4 percent and 12-of-17 singles for 70.6 percent.

TROY CHRISTIAN (51)

Matthew Coots 0-0-0-0, Holden Varvel 1-0-0-2, Spencer Thomas 3-0-0-6, Logan George 1-0-0-2, Nathan Kirkpatrick 2-3-2-15, Nathanael Boone 0-0-0-0, Christian Salazar 4-2-14, Grant Zawadzki 2-0-8-12. Totals 13-5-10/13-51.

ST. JOHN'S (49)

Andy Grothouse 2-1-2-9, Ryan Buescher 6-0-2-14, Eric Clark 1-0-0-2, Ryan Koester 1-1-0-5, Curtis Geise 2-1-7-16, Evan Hays 0-0-1-1, Seth Bockey 2-0-0-4. Totals 14-3-12/17-49.

Score by Quarters:

Troy Christ. 12 10 16 13 - 51

St. John's 13 12 14 10 - 49

Three-point goals: Troy Christian 5-15, St. John's 3-16.