STEUBENVILLE - Steubenville Central hoisted up 34 free throws in its tussle with visiting Weirton Madonna on Friday. Six of them made a huge difference.
The half dozen Michael Carapellotti swishes, all coming down the stretch, propelled the Crusaders to a thrilling 57-53 victory against the previously unbeaten Blue Dons.
His first two makes came following a Madonna technical foul and gave Central its first lead, 53-52. His final four sealed the deal and set off a spirited celebration inside the Crusaders gym.
''I'm just elated for these kids,'' Steubenville Central coach Sean Tucker said. ''They owe it to themselves. They came out and played the way they practice. They played the way they are taught. At no point have I had any doubt about the way these kids would step up.
''Carapellotti came off the bench with some huge points. He shot the ball extremely well and finished at the free-throw line. That's something we stress at practice every day.''
The junior sharpshooter finished the night with a game-high 26 points. He registered 15 in the critical final quarter.
Madonna (2-1) appeared to be in control after a Nick Battista free throw put the Blue Dons ahead by eight, 45-37, early in the fourth quarter. Carapellotti cut the margin to five by sinking a free throw and converting a Jon Emmerling pass into a hoop. Brannt Pieniazek converted both ends of a 1-and-1 to make it 45-42 Madonna.
Carapellotti followed a Clay Rokisky hoop with a triple and the Crusaders (4-2) were within two. Drazen Frankovitch turned two offensive rebounds into four points before Carapellotti connected again from behind the arc. A Pieniazek basket made it 51-50. Connor Mogan and Brenton Colabella exchanged free tosses to set the stage for Carapellotti's heroics.
During the critical stages of the final quarter, the Blue Dons were charged with four turnovers.
"They won it at the foul line and Coach Tucker turned the heat up on us in the last three minutes,'' Madonna coach George Vargo said. ''Our players couldn't handle the pressure. We lost it at the foul line, we lost our composure and the heat burned us.''
The Blue Dons held a 10-9 after the first period despite hitting just 3 of 15 from the floor. Rokisky and company got it going in the second quarter, hitting 9 of 14 and grabbing a 31-22 advantage at the intermission.
During a stretch in the stanza, Rokisky scored nine straight Blue Don points. He canned a triple, swished a fallaway jumper and went up strong in the paint. He finished the half with 19 but added just one more basket the rest of the game.
''We did a fantastic job on the defensive end,' Tucker said. ''A lot of people don't see what happens on defense. We held Rokisky to just two points in the second half, that was huge. Brannt (Pieniazek) and Zach (Herrington) played outstanding defense."
Colabella added 10 points to support Carapellotti's effort. He also hauled down 11 rebounds to register a double-double. Herrington and Emmerling, Central's hard-working floor general, had six boards each.
The Crusaders nailed 24 of their 34 free throws. From the floor, they were 15 for 42.
''This was just a great, great win for Catholic Central,'' Tucker said. ''We had so many key players step up and our bench guys did a fantastic job.''
Rokisky grabbed six rebounds to go with his 21 points. Frankovitch hauled down eight and scored seven points as did Battista.
The Blue Dons finished 11 of 14 from the free-throw line and 19 of 50 from the field.
"In our first three games, we had the target on our back," Vargo pointed out. "The target is now off your back. We'll see what happens as we move forward.
''(Friday) was all about mental toughness. It had nothing to do with X's and O's. It had nothing to do with missing a shot. It had to do with when you take a shot, what kind of shot you take, how long you hold the ball and your ability to have the other come out and foul you. We didn't do any of that. Those are things we'll work on in practice as we move forward.''