FORRESTON – The biggest possession of the Class 1A Forreston Regional semifinal matchup between Polo and Aquin wasn't the first, or even the last.
Instead, it came with about 4 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game. With his team trailing by one, Aquin junior Aiden Chang made the most of the possession by launching – and making – a 24-footer. It gave his team the lead, and the Bulldogs had enough momentum to finish out the game with 44-39 victory over the Marcos.
"Our defense was fine all game," Polo head coach Matt Messer said. "We did a great job. We knew Chang was going to hit some tough shots, that's just what he does. We knew [Andrew] Martin was going to make some shots. We did a great job holding the rest of the team in check, and rebounding."
Polo (23-7) played a spectacular defensive game. The Marcos forced 15 turnovers and bad shots. They kept Aquin (22-5) in check, as Chang and Martin combined for 36 points for the Bulldogs.
The offensive end, however, was a different story. The Marcos couldn't get a shot to fall, especially in the first half. They shot 3-for-29 from the field before halftime – but thanks to their defense, they stayed right in the game, and only trailed 25-14 going into the locker room.
"I thought we got looks," Polo center AJ Dollmeyer said. "We got layups, but we just couldn't make any. We missed 18 layups in the first half. That's just a rough offensive night for anybody. Our defense was there tonight, just not our offense."
"Our offense really left us," Messer added. "I think we let the situation get to us a little bit, with the atmosphere. We weren't making our shots early."
Out of the locker room, Polo made their charge.
A putback by junior Max Simmons was followed by a pair of baskets from senior Brian Cavanaugh. This 6-0 run brought the Marcos to a more manageable deficit, and more importantly, sparked a revival from the Polo fans.
Trailing 29-22 with 2:41 left in the third, junior Matthew Handel received a pass in his left corner. A quick scan for Aquin defenders, or lack thereof, gave him a green light to let it fly. As the ball swished through the net, Handel found himself on the ground next to a Bulldog defender. A late lunge at Handel from a defender allowed him a chance at a rare four-point play – which he completed – at a critical time.
"Proud of our kids for coming out of halftime, relaxing and fighting the way they did," Messer said. "It's Matthew's job, and we trust him to shoot it. He's the only kid who has a green light on the 3 all the time. He got a good look and got fouled. He didn't play a lot in the first half, so I was proud of him the way he fought back."
A basket by sophomore Brad Cavanaugh was followed by yet another 3-pointer from Handel, to give Polo its first lead of the game, 30-29 with 2 minutes left in the third.
Aquin started an exchange of baskets to set up Chang's deep 3 with 4:30 left in the game that gave the Bulldogs a 36-34 lead. They added a pair of baskets to further extend their lead.
Brad Cavanaugh hit the front end of a one-and-one to break Aquin's run. His second took a funky hop off the rim, and fell into Dollmeyer's hands. He quickly took it back up and drew a foul. He made both, and added another pair on their next possession to pull his team within one, 40-39.
"In a game like this, there's nothing left to lose," Dollmeyer said. "Throw it all out there, and hopefully you can come out on top. I did everything I did to help my team win."
On the ensuing Aquin possession, Martin fired a quick floater in the middle of the lane. It took a hard hop off the front of the rim, but luckily for the Bulldogs, senior Anthoy Townsend happen to be running through the lane, and corralled the rebound. He was fouled and made both free throws to restore a three-point lead with 17 secounds left.
"Every game is do or die," Aquin coach Rich Chang said. "Survive is the right word, and I think that's what happened tonight for us. I thought we played a good game. I thought they played an excellent game. Their defense dictated a lot of things to us. That was a huge difference. It was a great game."
Polo had a nice look from Handel on the wing on its final possession, but his shot was off-target by a few inches and fell into a pack of Bulldogs.
Star of the Game: Aiden Chang, Aquin, 20 points.
Key Performers: AJ Dollmeyer, Polo, 12 points, 7 rebounds. Andrew Martin, Aquin, 14 points, 11 rebounds.