— CT Sports Now (@CT_Sports_Now) January 17, 2018
MIDDLETOWN — Undefeated Guilford made six free throws in the final minute to nail down a 58-51 Southern Connecticut Conference win in front of a noisy crowd of 300 at the Art Kohs Gym Tuesday night.
Guilford led by as much as seven early, but the Hammonasset Division game was close throughout. Guilford (9-0) led 17-12 after one, but Xavier knocked that down to 27-26 at the half. Twice Xavier took a one point lead at 35-34 and again at 40-39, but each time Guilford rebounded to retake the lead.
It was a 52-50 game with 1:05 left to play when Xavier missed an open three-pointer from the corner. Xavier was forced to foul and Guilford — although it had a terrible night from the free-throw line, making just 9-of-23, made them in the closing minute while holding Xavier to just a point.
“We always had an answer,” Guilford coach Jeff DeMaio said. “I was very happy with that. Except for our free-throw shooting, I liked how we were focused from the tip and I liked how hard we played. This was real heavyweight battle and our guys made some plays down the stretch.”
Most of Xavier’s scoring came from two players. Zach Strole had 25 points, in what Xavier coach Mike Kohs called the game of his life, and Jackson Benigni added 23.
“It’s too bad we couldn’t get a win when Strole played so well,” Kohs said. “But we didn’t get much offense from the others besides him and Benigni.”
Strole’s big game was unexpected.
“He surprised me,” DeMaio said. “He really stepped up for them. He was great.”
Kohs thought that the key to the game was rebounding.
“The difference is we got beat on the backboards,” he said. “They had far too many second and third opportunities. There had to be at least six times their second chances turned into points.”
He pointed to two three-pointers by Sam Inchalek, one of which just beat the buzzer at the end of the third that gave the Indians a 45-42 lead, as second-chance back-breakers.
“Every time we would get close or take the lead, they made big shots,” Kohs said.
Noah Rubino, Guilford’s center, did the most damage inside, scoring 19 points while guard Matt Donlon chipped in with 15. An indication of the inside domination was the number of free throws. While Guilford didn’t shoot them well, the Indians had 23 freebies. Xavier, which rarely drove to the rim, had only eight.
“I thought we had a few chances to take a charge on Rubino in the first half, but we didn’t do it,” Kohs said. “Heck, if we get a couple of fouls on him early, then maybe it’s a different game.”
And the final note on free throws: it isn’t how many you make, but when you make them. And in the final minute, Guilford made six of its game total of nine makes.
“Xavier’s going to win a lot of games,” DeMaio said. “Mike is a tremendous coach, as good as you’ll find. But from our point of view, winning a road game in this conference is really big.”
Xavier fell to 5-4.
Guilford 58, Xavier 51
GUILFORD17 10 18 13—58
XAVIER12 14 16 9—51
Noah Rubino 8 3 19, Sam Dombroski 2 1 5, Josh Krausse 1 1 4, Matt Donlon 5 3 15, Ian Slattery 2 1 7, Sam Inchalek 3 0 8. Totals 21 9 58.
Jackson Benigni 8 5 23, Matt Bielenda 0 1 1, Zach Strole 12 0 25, Andrew Brown 1 0 2. Totals: 21 6 51.
3-point goals: Krause, Donlon 2, Slattery 2, Inchalek 2, Benigni 2, Strole.