NORMAL - An early 11-2 lead provided hope this one might be different, that in a season of tight games, there may be breathing room Friday night for Normal Community High School's basketball team.
Instead, rival Normal West rode the broad shoulders of junior center Cody White back into the game, taking the lead briefly in the third quarter and trailing just 42-40 with 58.6 seconds remaining.
On cue, crunch time had arrived.
"About every game we've had this year has been a close game. It seems like we're getting used to them," NCHS senior guard Craig Lutes said. "We have certain plays we run at the end of games. We've had so much work at them, they're starting to become a habit."
NCHS executed well enough to get to the free-throw line eight times in the final minute, sinking seven to secure a 49-44 Big 12 Conference victory over the visiting Wildcats.
"I think it's definitely beneficial for us that we've been in that situation quite a bit," Lutes said.
Coach Dave Witzig agreed, calling the game "a microcosm of our season."
"Every game comes down to the fourth quarter and pressure possessions," he said. "It's good that we've had two games in a row where we've been able to make good decisions and come out with victories. Hopefully, this will be a trend that continues."
Lutes scored 16 points and 6-foot-1 senior Sheldon Harper added 11 points and nine rebounds for the Ironmen (10-15, 4-7), who avenged a 59-35 loss to West in the Intercity Tournament.
The 6-6, 240-pound White had 23 points and 12 rebounds for the Wildcats (10-13, 5-6), who lost for the fifth time in six games.
Junior Corey Aken added 11 points, including eight in the second half, but no other Wildcat scored more than four.
"We needed somebody else besides Cody to step up early," West coach Brian Cupples said. "(Aken) got going a little bit in the third quarter.
"It's just disappointing to get the lead and then not be able to take care of the ball and expand it. I knew once they got it (the lead) and spread us out that it was going to be really, really hard."
West trailed 11-2 and 13-4 before pulling within 19-17 at the half. The Wildcats took their first lead at 25-23 three minutes into the third quarter on a basket by Todd Albert.
However, the Wildcats turned it over on their next three possessions and NCHS took advantage. Sophomore Chris Lawson sank a free throw and moments later hit a 3-pointer. Harper added a layup off an assist from Lawson and the Ironmen were in front to stay at 29-25.
"We got that lead fast, and we didn't slow down once we got it to come down and get another basket after a stop (on defense)," White said.
"It's really discouraging when you get down like that in a big game. I think that sets the tone for the entire game. You get yourself in a hole right away, and it makes it that much harder to stay in it."
NCHS held on largely with 10 of 14 free-throw accuracy in the fourth quarter. The Ironmen were 15 of 21 at the line overall and shot 42 percent from the field.
West made 11 of 17 free throws and sank 39 percent of its field goal attempts. The Wildcats warmed up after making only 1 of 8 in the first quarter.
The Ironmen had a 31-25 rebounding edge, with Dan Frantz grabbing six and Lutes five in support of Harper. It all was just enough to overcome White.
"You can scout them and watch them, but when he's going against your guys and you see how big and physical and strong he is, it's tough," Witzig said.
"We did not have an answer to try to stop him, but fortunately Craig Lutes and Sheldon Harper stepped up. I thought Jason Vincent (four points, three rebounds) gave us some real quality minutes and Alex Buck (six points) did a nice job off the bench also."