ST. CLAIRSVILLE - If you dissect the box score of a close, back-and-forth basketball game, more often than not you will find that the team that eventually won was more proficient from the free-throw line.
In a game that featured 18 lead changes and five ties Saturday afternoon between Fort Frye and Magnolia, it was the Cadets who had the glaring advantage from the charity stripe and were able to cash in another OVAC championship.
Junior sharpshooter Shon Smith scored 19 of his all-class tournament record 35 points in the fourth quarter, including hitting all 11 of his free throws, and Fort Frye set a mark with 21 made freebies on their way to a 64-51 victory against Magnolia in the Class 3A title tilt at Ohio University Eastern.
Magnolia’s Hunter Campbell takes a shot over Fort Frye’s Zach Eddy during action of their game.
The victory allowed Coach Dan Liedtke's 16-3 team to become the first to win boys' basketball championships in two classes after capturing the 2A title a season ago.
Meanwhile, Dave Tallman's squad dropped to 17-3 and failed in its bid for a second straight 3A crown.
"This is a great tournament and the OVAC does an amazing job with it," Tallman said. "But our goal is to win a West Virginia state championship, and I think overall this means just a little bit more to the Ohio schools because it is tougher for them to get there (state tournament)."
The first half had 12 lead changes and two ties with Fort Frye's biggest advantage coming at 5-2 while Magnolia twice led by four in the opening quarter, 9-5 and 11-7.
The Blue Eagles owned period leads of 13-12 and 25-24 at the break. It was more of the same in the third quarter, however, a Mark Winters hoop at 2:24 did cap an 8-0 run and gave Magnolia its biggest lead, 38-33.
It stood at 41-38 in favor of Magnolia after three quarters and was still 46-46 with 4:36 to play before Smith helped put things away for the Cadets. A conventional three-point play at 3:39 equaled Fort Frye's biggest advantage, to that point, and with a 49-46 reading, Liedtke's team never trailed again.
Beginning with Smith's free throw to convert the three-point play, the Cadets' final 16 points came from the free-throw line as they nailed 16 of 17 in the final 3:39 of play.
Magnolia did get a banked-in 3-pointer from Jayson Keller with 51 seconds showing, but overall the Cadets outscored the Eagles by an 18-5 margin down the stretch.
''I know that there were a lot of people who felt we didn't have a chance in this one," Liedtke said. "But we have a tradition of taking on all challenges. We put in a lot of hard work on details every day in practice.
"We have been playing very well recently, and I told the kids that if they go out and do well on all the things we have worked on, the rewards would come to them.
"I think it was real huge for us to stay close. We wanted to run the tempo and not let them start using their speed. And there is no question that championship teams make free throws, but if it had been up to me, I would have liked to ran more clock.
"Our goal was to hold the ball and shoot layups, but when the other team is fouling you have to put them in and we did that. These kids have such big hearts and are gym rats. They are just super good kids."
While Smith finished with 35, the only other double-figure scorer was senior Zach Eddy with 10. Chandler Lang added eight while Smith also pulled down eight missed shots.
"Shon (Smith) as a player is just such a fierce competitor," Liedtke, who also coaches the Cadets' girls, added. "And sometimes I think he shines even more in bigger games. I know he took this one over. He got some opportunities and I knew he was feeling it, so we just let him go."
Winters, a Class AA all-stater, finished with a team-high 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Hunter Campbell also had a double-double coming off the bench with 12 points and 10 caroms. Stephen Rogalski chipped in 12 points - 10 of those coming in the third - before a back injury slowed him down.
"The fans really got their money's worth with this one," Tallman said. "I think we just picked the wrong day to try and pick on (Shon) Smith. And the thing is that he had two great defenders on him for most of the game.
"I think the foul shooting speaks for itself and that is all I can say about that. I will put our OVAC officials up against any other officials, but I really think they had a rough patch (Saturday). Day in and day out, we have some great basketball officials.
"We won our first six and lost to a good Dayton Chaminade-Julienne team. Then we won six more and lost to my son's St. Marys Ryken team and now this game breaks a five-game winning streak. But I believe they exposed some weaknesses in our team and we will go to work on those.
"The bottom line is that we want to win the last game of the season (state championship) and we feel like we can do that."
Tallman's remark regarding the officiating was in regard to the fact that the Cadets were 21 of 24 from the stripe while his Blue Eagles were a mere 1 of 4.
Liedtke, meanwhile, had little time to celebrate, needing to leave OUE right away and head to Cambridge where his girls' team waS playing in an Ohio Sectional game .
The longtime boys' coach, however, did agree with one thing Tallman mentioned.
"It is really great to win OVAC championships, especially in Class AA and now AAA," he said. "(Tallman) is right, not only is it a very tough road to the state tournament in Ohio, it is a rough road just to get to the regionals. That is just so big, and if you are lucky enough to get past the regional, well that is huge."