By ADAM SHINDER
Recorder Sports Staff
FORT PLAIN -- A few points either way, and the Western Athletic Conference North Division boys basketball race could be going very differently for both the Canajoharie Cougars and Fort Plain Hilltoppers.
Tuesday night, the Cougars made the short trip west on Route 5S and scored the latest in a series of dramatic wins, as Josh Gonzalez's free throw with 23.2 seconds to play lifted Canajoharie to a 46-45 victory. Coupled with Friday's overtime win over Saratoga Central Catholic, the Cougars' recent flair for the dramatic has the team in control of the WAC North with just three league games remaining.
"I just told my guys at the end of the game, 'There are two types of teams in basketball: There's the type of teams that cower under pressure and the type of teams that thrive under pressure," said Canajoharie head coach Phil Schoff. "That's why these guys are such a special group, because every time the pressure's been on them, they've stepped up."
Meanwhile, it was another in a string of heartbreaking losses for the Hilltoppers, who have now dropped three out of their last four games -- with the three setbacks coming by a grand total of five points.
"It comes down to being able to make a play late in the game," said Fort Plain head coach Casey Russom. "We lost to Mayfield by one in overtime, lost to St. Johnsville by two in overtime, then we lost by one tonight. If you give us five more points, we're sitting pretty good, but we just didn't make the plays when we had to."
Tuesday, the Hilltoppers got off to a scorching start behind Jake Sardina, who buried a trio of 3-pointers in the opening quarter to pace Fort Plain to a 17-9 lead after eight minutes. But, in the second quarter, Zach Bowerman came into the game off the bench for Canajoharie and gave the Cougars an immediate offensive burst, helping his team outscore Fort Plain 18-8 in the second quarter to take a two-point halftime lead.
Bowerman, who usually starts in the Canajoharie backcourt with Dillan Veeder and Kevin Shannon, was held in reserve Tuesday night while Karl Gustafson got the start. Once Bowerman entered the game, he went on to lead all scorers with 16 points.
"I knew he was gonna be an offensive spark," Schoff said. "Karl's a great defensive specialist, so I had him start the game, but when Zach came off the bench he was lights out. He kept his head under pressure."
The teams went back-and-forth throughout the second half, but with the game tied in the final minute, Gonzalez was fouled by Eric Orologio and went to the line for a 1-and-1. Gonzalez hit the first shot to give the Cougars the lead, but missed the second, giving Fort Plain the ball with 21.7 seconds to play.
Fort Plain -- playing without senior forward Chris Hanifin, who was nursing an injury -- had two chances to win, but both Marcus Failing's 3-pointer from the corner and Orologio's last-ditch baseline jumper after a scramble for the rebound were off the mark.
"I was worried if they did get a shot up and they missed of them crashing the boards and getting a putback," Schoff said. "Once they got that second shot off, my heart started to pound."
Once the dust settled, it was another win for the cardiac Cougars, and one Bowerman said would be a feather in the team's cap.
"It proves how tough we are," he said.