Isaac Grapperhaus was not having a good day.
The South Central junior had spent much of Friday’s game against St. Elmo on the bench with foul trouble. And when he was on the floor, his production was well below his normal standards, as he had just four points and four rebounds heading into the final minute of play.
So when the 6-foot-5 center reached over a St. Elmo player to coral a Tanner Bushue miss in the closing seconds of a tie game, just about everyone in the building figured he would be whistled for an over-the-back foul.
But that whistle never came.
Instead, Grapperhaus went up for an easy putback, giving South Central a much-needed 49-47 win over an Eagles team that needed a ‘W’ just as badly.
The irony of Grapperhaus winding up being the hero was not lost on Cougars coach Gary Shirley.
‘Grapperhaus struggled,’ Shirley said. ‘Then he comes up with the game-winning basket, so hopefully that helps him a little bit.’
The harsh irony was not lost on St. Elmo coach Greg Feezel, either.
‘We had him in foul trouble all night long,’ Feezel said. ‘We did exactly what we wanted to against him.’
Surprisingly, the opposing coaches were also on the same page in regard to the controversial play at the end of the game.
‘We didn’t get the call here at the end,’ Feezel said. ‘I think it was pretty evident what should have been called, but it wasn’t.’
Shirley agreed, to a lesser extent.
‘I don’t think it was as bad as it looked,’ Shirley said. ‘But if I was on the other end of it, I might have been a little upset. Maybe a lot, I don’t know.’
Both coaches agreed that there were key moments throughout the nonconference thriller that were just as important as the play that, ultimately, everyone will remember.
For the Eagles (7-5), a number of those moments occurred during a rough first half they were ultimately unable to overcome.
St. Elmo turned the ball over on its first four possessions and, with the exception of a two-minute spurt in the second quarter, struggled mightily throughout the first half, falling into a 33-21 hole. The Eagles made just 7 of 19 from the field in the first half, turning the ball over 13 times.
But St. Elmo looked like a different team at the start of the second half, and the Cougars suddenly couldn’t hit a shot after starting 12 of 25 from the field.
St. Elmo cut South Central’s lead to just three, 37-34, with a 13-4 advantage in the quarter, setting up a roller-coaster final frame.
The Eagles completed their comeback from a double-digit deficit when a Shad Hill 3-pointer gave them a 42-41 lead at the 3-minute mark.
Grapperhaus countered with a free throw to tie the game, but Booher found Wade Nevergall in transition off a defensive rebound moments later, giving the Eagles a two-point edge.
Neverall followed with a steal, but the Eagles missed an opportunity to extend their lead ,as they turned the ball over on the ensuing possession.
Aaron Robb countered with a 3-pointer, but Hill came right back with a trifecta of his own, giving St. Elmo a 47-45 lead with 1:40 to go.
Bushue then tied the game with a bucket off an inbounds play, and St. Elmo was unable was unable to convert on five shots at the basket on its next trip down.
Bushue corralled the fifth St. Elmo miss with 35 seconds to go, setting the host team up for a game-winning basket. The Cougars missed their first two attempts – as Bushue came up empty on a drive to the hoop and a shot from beyond the arc.
But Grapperhaus hauled in the latter miss for the game-winner.
Robb came off the bench to provide 17 points for the Cougars, but his energy was just as important as his offense. The junior guard added five rebounds and two steals.
‘I can’t say enough about Aaron Robb coming off the bench,’ Shirley said. ‘He did another nice job.’
Bushue added 12 points, six rebounds and three steals despite being hounded by Hill all night. Will Crain finished with just two points, but helped hold Booher to just nine points.
‘Our goal before the game was to keep Booher and Nevergall under 20,’ Shirley said. ‘We did that.’
Hill scored 15 of his game-high 18 points in the second half, sparking St. Elmo’s comeback.
‘Shad was the most valuable player on our team tonight,’ Feezel said. ‘That kid did everything I asked him to do, plus more. Shad played a whale of a ballgame.’
Booher added 12 rebounds, but the Eagles first-half woes haunted them in another tight loss.
‘I told them there in the locker room – you throw that second- half effort into the first half, and we might win this ballgame by 15,’ Feezel said.
Three of the Eagles five losses have been by five points or fewer, and things won’t get easier in their next two games, as they will take on Stew-Stras and Monticello.
‘Close isn’t cutting it. That’s what’s happening with our ballteam,’ Feezel said. ‘This is the fourth one that I can remember that we should have probably won, and we haven’t done it.
‘I wish I could say they’re a bunch of sophomores and juniors, and that this is just growing pains, but this isn’t growing pain. We’ve just got to learn to win. Maybe someday we will.
The Cougars appear back on track, having won two straight after a disappointing fourth-place showing at the St. Elmo Holiday Tournament.
‘Win, lose or draw, it was a pretty good effort,’ Shirley said. ‘It’s better to win, but even if you get a loss out of it, you’re pretty pleased with the effort.’