Oh so close
There were stretches Tuesday night in the Field House where it looked like Spencer would finally get a long-awaited victory over perennial Lakes Conference powerhouse Western Christian who started the week ranked third in Class 2A.
The Tigers, boosted by a 20-point effort from point man Blake Illg, including an 11-point fourth quarter, went blow for blow with the Wolfpack for the full 32 minutes, but fourth-quarter foul trouble for season-long leading scorers Jake Kluender and Preston Funderburg paired with impressive clutch free-throw shooting from Western down the stretch resulted in yet another razor close loss for the Tigers, 69-64.
The defeat marks the fourth time this season Spencer has come up just short down the stretch against currently state-ranked teams.
"It's disappointing to continue to lose these games, but from my seat, I'm seeing improvement. We didn't handle the close games, with Le Mars, the first time with Western and even Friday night with Storm Lake, very well late," Spencer boys basketball coach Kory Petzenhauser said. "I thought we were kind of scattered in those late game situations, and tonight I thought our guys really executed our game plan on both ends."
Neither team could grab much of an advantage in the first half as Western held a 16-14 lead after one quarter, and Spencer held a 33-32 advantage at halftime.
Both coaches were emptying their bags of tricks while each executed at a very high level.
The Tigers seized the momentum out of the locker room as Illg took Spencer's first possession of the half coast-to-coast for two, and he added a triple with 5:40 on the clock to make it 40-36.
Western came right back to tie it at 40 in the next minute and a half only to see John Greer nail a triple and a pair of free throws to put Spencer back in front 45-40 with 2:18 to go in the stanza.
The Wolfpack made the most of those 138 seconds, going on a 9-0 run which would have been 11-0 had Kluender not hustled down the floor for a chase down block on a layup at the buzzer.
Western got the first bucket of the fourth to make it 51-45, and Funderburg headed to the bench with 6:44 to go in the game with his fourth foul. Chris Anderson managed to put two hard-fought points on the board on the next possession, but the Wolfpack scored two quick buckets for a 55-47 lead, forcing a Petzenhauser timeout.
Two Greer free throws and a pair of jumpers from Illg, including one from long range, tightened the score to 56-54 with 3:56 to go.
Each team traded blows for the next three minutes until Illg dished a 3-point assist to Riley Maschino on the right wing, making it 62-58 with 1:02 on the clock.
Spencer proceeded to foul on every defensive possession for the remaining minute while Illg continuously drove all the way to the rim for buckets or free throws, and his acrobatic maneuver with 12.2 seconds to play cut the lead to 66-64.
The Tigers opted to foul Western's Joey Horstman, a 53 percent free-throw shooter for the season entering the game, on the ensuing inbounds play. Horstman knocked down both shots effectively sealing the Wolfpack victory.
"We fouled who we wanted to foul based on what they've done all year," Petzenhauser said. "Sometimes you need a little help, and Western didn't provide that."
Illg finished with four dimes in addition to his 20 points. Greer matched that assist total, adding 12 points, and Funderburg was the final Tiger in double figures with 10 points even. Funderburg and Kluender led the rebounding efforts with seven apiece. Chris Anderson also finished with an impressive nine points, going up against 6-foot-7 Western standout Josh VanLingen all night long.
"The last couple of games Blake was rushing a little bit. Tonight I thought he had a really nice flow to his game. His attack was under control, and he was shooting in rhythm," Petzenhauser said. "With Chris, at some point throughout the year with scouting, teams are going to make him make some plays, and he made some plays tonight that were huge for us. He doesn't have to go for 10 every night, but if he can get two or three buckets it just makes us that much harder to guard."
Overall, the Tigers shot the ball at a 49 percent clip for the game, including an 8-19 performance from 3-point land. They left a few points at the charity stripe where they were 10-16.
Spencer drops to 8-8 on the year and 7-5 in conference play. They get their second crack at 3A No. 4-ranked Spirit Lake Friday night on the road.
Despite the disappointment in tight games with good teams so far this year, Petzenhauser knows his group can put everything together.
"We told the guys that with the improvement that we've been showing, teams are not going to want to face us," Petzenhauser said. "We can throw the records out the window come tournament time. Everyone is 0-0, and we'll be excited to lace them up and go play."