|GALESBURG – It's not about having a Merry Christmas when it comes to ifs and buts for the United Township girls' basketball team. It's about having a better new year.|
"We've got to start turning close losses into wins," said UT coach Justin Schiltz. "Our last three losses in the Western Big 6 have been by two, four and now two points."
The latest of that hard-luck string came Thursday night at John Thiel Gymnasium, with the Panthers falling 65-63 to the Galesburg Silver Streaks.
If those three losses were close wins, the Panthers would be in first place in the WB6. But, they instead sit in fifth, with a 1-3 record, two games out of first place.
"I'm not discouraged by any means, being 1-3 in a balanced league," said Schiltz of his 7-4 club, with an eye on the conference's second half when the calendar year turns. "We're just going to keep trying to get better."
Likewise, Galesburg coach Evan Massey, whose 8-2 team faced the same conference circumstances with a loss but are now 2-2, doesn't put any stock in the "back in it" credo.
"I don't want to sell my girls short; a lot of things can happen," said Massey. "That would be a lot for us to chew on, to be in the conference race. We've just got to keep getting better and take whatever happens."
What happened Thursday was that the Streaks performed much better in the clutch.
With UT holding a 56-54 lead with 2.5 minutes left in regulation, the game swung to the favor of the better free-throw shooting team. The Streaks hit 6-of-7 down the stretch, including five straight, while UT was 4-of-8.
That, of course, made the two-point outcome huge.
"Free throws were huge and turnovers were huge," said Schiltz. "In closely played games of this style, there are going to be a million mistakes. But late, at the end, you can't make one or two.
"Basketball is a game of mistakes, but the ones at the ends of games are critical ones. This is as tough an environment as it gets and you have to do the little things at the end to win."
UT did many of the right things in the second half just to get to that point. The Streaks led by a dozen at 34-22 with a minute left in the first half. However, the Panthers made it a one-point game by the start of the fourth quarter.
Down the stretch, they had to plug away without their leading scorer, MiKayla Fallon (7 points, 2-of-11 shooting but with a team-high 10 rebounds), who fouled out. Stepping up, though, were Abby VanDeventer (25 points), the VanWatermeulen twins, Jennifer and Jamie, with matching outputs of 10 points, and Halle Lewis with nine boards.
What didn't fit, though, was UT taking the air out of the ball with four minutes left in the game clinging to a four-point lead. They shaved a minute off the clock, but turned the ball over, with the Streaks regaining the lead at the start of that free-throw stretch.
In order to hold on, UT would have had to convert at the line, but the Panthers were just 19-of-35 there. The Streaks were 20-of-28 on free throws. Plus, UT committed 32 turnovers, compared to the Streaks' 25.
"Our girls were gassed; they were getting tired," Schiltz said of the delay call. "It wasn't to stem momentum; our girls were getting heavy-legged."