ANNAWAN — When Lincoln Trail Conference boys' basketball rivals Annawan and Ridgewood face off, an uptempo, high-energy style of play is the rule rather than the exception.
Tuesday night was no exception as the two met to open conference play. In a game featuring two of the league's premier scorers, the Braves had to hold on after the Spartans whittled a 14-point deficit down to three, finishing strong for a 79-73 victory.
Ridgewood (10-7) closed the gap to 71-68 on a Mitchell Brooks 3-pointer with 1:09 left to play; Brooks hit five of eight 3-point attempts and finished with 25 points after missing three games with a shoulder separation. However, an 11-of-13 showing from the foul line secured the win for Annawan (11-6).
"Free throws were key for us in the fourth quarter. We've been working on that quite a bit, and it ended up paying off," said Annawan coach Alex Coppejans, whose club hit 15 of 21 free throws and outrebounded Ridgewood 32-19 to overcome the Spartans' 55-percent shooting clip (29 of 53).
"Ridgewood's a good team; they've got some good players and hit some tough shots. Our guys relaxed a bit when we got up by 14, but Ridgewood's never out of it. This was a learning experience for us."
Down by as many as 14 points in the third quarter after trailing by nine at halftime, the Spartans gave themselves a boost when Lucas Kessinger hit a 3-ball with 5.6 seconds on the clock to bring his club within 60-52 going into the fourth. Midway through the final period, Ridgewood closed to within 64-61.
But despite the efforts of Brooks and junior guard Ganon Greenman, who tallied 30 points on 11-of-16 shooting, Ridgewood was unable to complete its rally down the stretch.
"Our kids played hard, and we fought back to within three," said Ridgewood coach Bryan Brooks. "That's one thing about us — we never give up. We know we can battle with anybody; our kids are disappointed that we didn't come out of here with a win. We wanted to come in here and win."
The high-octane Annawan offense, which featured four double-figure scores led by star senior guard Julian Samuels (30 points, seven rebounds, three steals), challenged the Spartans all night.
"We tried to throw a little different look at them in the second half with the triangle-and-two, but it didn't work out," said Brooks. "We thought going back to man would energize us."
From the Braves' standpoint, Tuesday's full house coupled with their LTC opener provided the energy that enabled them to go up by as much as 11 in the first half before taking a 45-36 lead into halftime.
"It's always a fun game against Ridgewood," said Samuels. "There was a lot of energy in the gym, and both teams fed off of it. It was a great atmosphere to play in and a great start to the LTC season."
In addition to the starting trio of Samuels, Reece Gripp (18 points, five rebounds) and Ryan Goodman (15 points, six boards), Annawan got an extra boost from one of its top reserves, 6-foot-4 sophomore forward Mason Matney.
Hitting all seven of his shots on the night, Matney scored seven of his 15 points in the second period to help the Braves widen what was a 23-19 lead after one. He also made his presence felt inside with a game-high eight rebounds.
"I wanted to come in with a lot of energy, use my size and finish at the rim," he said. "Ridgewood is a tough team, but being on our home floor helped a lot. Now, we've got to go to Stark County (Friday night) and focus on what we need to do there."
Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter
Sent weekly directly to your inbox!