By ADAM SHINDER
Recorder Sports Staff
FONDA -- The last time the Canajoharie Cougars lost a basketball game -- to Fort Plain back on Dec. 12, 2012 -- it spurred a 12-game win streak that carried Canajoharie to a Western Athletic Conference North Division title and a berth in Friday's WAC Cup championship game against Mekeel Christian Academy.
Now that MCA brought an end to that particular streak, Cougars coach Phil Schoff is hoping for a similar run -- one that can carry Canajoharie deep into the Section II Class C playoffs.
"We don't have this taste in our mouth," Schoff said. "The last time we lost, we went on a winning streak and didn't lose for two months. So I'm hoping that this loss, instead of it being a downfall is going to be a breakthrough."
Friday, Mekeel Christian rode a 30-point effort from senior guard Caleb Stewart -- aided by a 21-of-21 performance at the free throw line -- to counterattack Canajoharie's hot start and eventually pull away for a 64-41 victory.
Josh Gonzalez led the way for Canajoharie (15-3) with 20 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots, but the Cougars must now rebound from a frustrating Friday night in time for Wednesday's Class C playoff opener at home against Voorheesville.
Though Schoff was hoping for a better draw than the No. 4 seed the Cougars received, with the WAC Cup in the rearview mirror, he said his team is focused on hosting the Blackbirds.
"I'm not about to complain about something I can't control," he said. "What we can control is beating Voorheesville."
Against Mekeel Christian, the Cougars came out of the gate strong to open up an 11-3 lead late in the first quarter, but then came Stewart's steady stream of trips to the foul line. Schoff knew that the Lions' lanky senior guard was a mismatch for his team, but the scenario that played out Friday was exactly what he wanted to avoid.
"One of the keys I had that we wanted to prevent was foul trouble, and that's what hurt us," he said. "When you only have Caleb Stewart make four field goals and he ends up with 30 (points), you know you did your job halfway. The other half is that you can't bail him out with a foul."
Mekeel Christian coach Chad Bowman said it was important that the 6-foot-6 Stewart attacked the basket Friday night, rather than settling for jumpers on an off shooting night while being guarded by Canajoharie's 5-foot-10 Kevin Shannon.
"We kind of were a little more determined to go to that matchup," Bowman said. "It was just a good matchup for us.
"A lot of times, if a kid doesn't shoot well, it's a pretty good strategy to get physical with him. Fortunately, that turned into points for us," he added. "Sometimes, as a good shooter, it's easy to settle for a jump shot. And when you settle for that jump shot, you're missing an opportunity to put some points on the board at the free throw line. The way they were getting physical with him, it made sense for him to attack the rim more than attack from the perimeter tonight."
Stewart was 8-of-8 from the charity stripe en route to 12 first-half points as the Lions used a 13-0 run late in the second quarter to take a 25-19 lead. After the Cougars had started out so smoothly in attacking an aggressive MCA team, Schoff said his team simply started to lag as the first half went on.
"We executed our game plan to a 'T' in the first quarter," he said. "Then the second quarter, we backed off a little, stopped attacking and they started attacking us."
The Lions kept attacking in the second half, expanding the lead to double digits on a Stewart 4-point play midway through the third quarter. Canajoharie stayed within striking distance for most of the second half, but as foul trouble mounted -- Dillan Veeder and Zach Folts each fouled out, while several other Canajoharie players spent significant time playing with three or four fouls -- Stewart kept marching to the line and the gap got bigger.
While Schoff gave plenty of credit to the Lions for knocking down 28 of their 31 free throw attempts, he acknowledged that it was tough to see his team make just 14 trips to the charity stripe -- and just as frustrating that the Cougars managed to make just six of those free throws.
"It's frustrating, because I felt like we were getting fouled just as often," Schoff said. "I'm not going to come up with an excuse, they're a better team and hats off too them. I think they're gonna run through (Class B) pretty well."