KETTERING — Alter coach Eric Coulter felt the tournament-like dread Tuesday night. Not in a win-or-go-home way, but in that nervous way.
He paced and frowned as the score got tight in the fourth quarter against Fenwick, a team the Knights beat by 26 in December. A 14-point halftime lead dwindled to five with five minutes left.
“I didn’t feel like we played well, I didn’t think we closed well, I didn’t think our intensity was where it needed to be,” he said.
Fenwick’s comeback, powered by Jude Hooks’ 12 fourth-quarter points, gave the game that uneasy tournament feel. So Coulter turned to the familiar feel of putting the game in the hands of Anthony Ruffolo, Gavin Geisel and A.J. Leen, a veteran trio he trusts to protect the ball and make free throws. It’s what his mentor, Joe Petrocelli, would have done. And the former Alter coach was in the bleachers on the stage behind the Alter bench.
Ruffolo, Geisel and Leen combined to make 11 of 12 free throws in the fourth quarter and the Knights held on for a 68-57 Greater Catholic League Co-ed victory in The Joe Petrocelli Gym. Ruffolo scored nine of his game-high 27 points in the fourth.
“The momentum shifted back to them, and when it gets like that without a shot clock, we’re going to do some Joe Petrocelli basketball and take the air out of it and move the basketball,” Coulter said.
When Alter (11-6, 6-1) called timeout early in the fourth quarter, Fenwick coach Mike Holweger knew what to expect.
“That’s what they do,” he said. “They’re great shooters, they’re very skilled and there’s a reason why they’re as good as they are.”
Fenwick (10-6, 3-4) was led by Hooks’ 19 points, D.J. Brown’s 15, Bailey Temming’s 12 and Ryder Thompson’s 11. But they dug a halftime hole in the momentum-shifting second quarter. After the Falcons surged to a 19-18 lead with an 8-0 run, Coulter called timeout. The next four minutes were a blur for the Falcons.
They committed turnovers on five of six possessions, Alter ran off 11 straight points and the Knights led 35-21 at halftime at the end of a 17-2 run. The Knights made six 3-pointers in the second quarter and 12 for the game.
“Simply we had some just awful turnovers during that stretch,” Holweger said. “And then we did not close out hard enough on the shooters. We were close, but against those guys you’ve got to have your hands up and you’ve got to be right on them.”
In the second half, perhaps, the Knights started to think about Friday night’s showdown with Chaminade Julienne at Centerville High School. The Eagles were upset last week by Carroll. Both teams enter the game tied for first place in the league at 6-1.
“As any coach would, I think our guys were looking ahead to the next game, which I didn’t want,” Coulter said. “But it’s hard. They’re kids.”
The Knights didn’t lose a league game last year and reached the Division II final four at UD Arena. Jacob Conner, the leader of that team, and point guard Ryan Chew graduated. The road back to UD will be difficult for Alter this year with teams like CJ, Dunbar, Meadowdale and Cincinnati Taft in the mix.
“We have a great opportunity here, and I think we can take it as far as our three captains will lead us,” Ruffolo said of himself, Geisel and Leen. “I’m really excited where we can go, and I think we can make another run at state.”
Coulter credited Fenwick for its fight to come back, and he and Ruffolo know that tournament time will come with the same challenges.
“There’s just a lot of really great teams that you can get beat by any night, so you’ve got to stay focused and not take any team lightly,” Ruffolo said. “We know if we play our best we can beat anyone, but then if we don’t show up we can lose anyone, too.”
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