LANARK – Eastland learned there's nothing free about free throws, and Polo was there to take advantage.
The Marcos closed with a 12-0 run over the last 2-plus minutes, during which time the Cougars struggled mightily at the free-throw line, and Polo was able to steal a 67-65 victory on Monday night in the championship game of the Eastland Holiday Tournament.
Senior guard Brian Cavanaugh provided the game-winner with 1.3 seconds remaining when he dropped in a 10-footer from the right wing.
"This is amazing," Cavanaugh said. "This is our first championship win we've had at the varsity so far. It's just great. You should hear our locker room."
Eastland (9-2) used a 13-0 run to seize a 50-37 lead with 3:05 remaining in the third quarter, and the lead was still at 10 points (65-55) when Blake Janssen dropped in a pair of free throws with 3:17 to go in the fourth. As it turned out, those were the last points scored by the Cougars.
Eastland went 0-for-7 from the line in the final 1:33, and with each miss by the Cougars, the Marcos made them pay. The final four of those misses were by senior guard Devin Hartman.
With 44.1 seconds to go and Eastland up 65-62, Hartman missed a pair. Polo (14-1) responded with a 3-pointer from junior guard Matthew Handel from deep in the corner, after Cavanaugh had driven into the lane and passed to his wide-open teammate.
"He's our best 3-point shooter by far," Cavanaugh said, "and I was actually trying to get it to him. I was really happy he shot."
"I knew Brian was either going to drive and shoot, or he was going to get it to me," Handel said. "That's the biggest shot I've ever taken. It was crazy."
With the score now at 65-65, Hartman again went to the line, this time with 11.2 seconds to play. He missed both, giving Polo a chance at the win. Cavanaugh delivered, but the Marcos still had to avoid a miracle finish by Eastland.
The Cougars ended up with a half-court shot by senior star Dalton Shaner, but it was wide left, setting off a wild celebration by the Marcos.
"Eastland just doesn't give up leads like that, but we never gave up," Polo coach Matt Messer said. "We needed to make some plays at the end, and it just seemed like a lot of things went our way."
AJ Dollmeyer, Polo's 6-foot-7 senior center, was a virtual non-factor due to foul trouble. He finished with two points and no rebounds, and he was out of the game with 5:59 left in the fourth quarter.
The slack was made up by the Cavanaugh brothers, Brian (28 points) and Brad (15 points), Max Simmons (11 points, 7 rebounds) and Wyatt Patterson (6 rebounds, 3 blocked shots). Patterson got the start due to a broken foot suffered by Zach Quaco on Saturday against Prophetstown. Ivan Grogan and Sawyer Frano also contributed key plays at the end.
"To have kids come in there and step up, it's a very gratifying win that way," Messer said. "We feel we're a deep team, and we were able to prove that tonight when we needed it."
Shaner hit 13 of 17 shots and led all scorers with 29 points, while Skylar Paulson finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds before fouling out with 2:22 left in the fourth quarter.
The Cougars were an efficient 25-for-47 from the field and out-rebounded the Marcos 32-22, but came up short in other key areas. They committed 20 turnovers to Polo's 12, but missing their final seven at the line sealed their fate.
"It comes down to they executed better than us down the stretch," Shaner said. "They fouled us, and we didn't make free throws. We turned it over, and they made shots. They just executed better than us in the fourth quarter."
"I give Polo full credit," Eastland coach Tony Dunlap said. "They played hard the entire game. We played hard for 4 minutes. It's my job to make us play harder, and it's my job to make them tougher at the free-throw line."
Eastland and Polo do not have a regular-season game scheduled this season, but will likely be the top two seeds at the Class 1A Forreston Regional.
Star of the game: Brian Cavanaugh, Polo, 28 points
Key performers: Dalton Shaner, Eastland, 29 points; Skylar Paulson, Eastland, 17 points, 13 rebounds; Brad Cavanaugh, Polo, 15 points
Up next: Stockton at Polo, 4:30 Saturday; Stockton at Eastland, 7:30 Jan. 7