NORMAL - With every brick laid by the Morton High School basketball team in the first half, heads began to sink, and confidence began to crumble.
But just when it appeared the momentum was swinging in University High's favor, the Potters became ignited beyond the 3-point arc.
The Pioneers allowed Morton to connect on 5-of-9 attempts from beyond the 3-point line in the second half and watched Potter forward Matt Downing manhandle the zone defense in a 50-46 nonconference home loss.
The 6-foot-4 Downing finished with 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting - including seven treys.
"I got a lot of wide-open shots, good looks at the basket," Downing said. "In the second half, I shot the ball with confidence."
He nailed four 3-pointers over the final 16 minutes on just five attempts.
"We didn't give up on ourselves," said Morton coach Steve Schupp, whose team shot 6 of 22 (27.2 percent) in the first half while making only five shots on 15 attempts from beyond the arc. "It was a matter of getting ourselves adjusted and getting our feet on the ground."
U High's feet seemed to be stuck in the mud.
Playing their second game in as many nights and relying on just eight players, the Pioneers struggled to defend the perimeter, resulting in holes in the zone defense.
"We're not a real strong inside team so we're trying to force the shot from the outside," U High coach Cal Hubbard said. "We didn't try to guard it because we didn't have the legs to do it."
The Pioneers (11-13) opened the fourth quarter on a 6-2 spurt that gave them a 37-35 lead with 6:17 remaining. However, Morton (11-14) scored seven points on its next three possessions to grab a 42-39 advantage with 3:52 left.
"They attacked our zone well," U High guard Drew Miller said.
A 3-pointer from Miller tied the game at 42, but the Potters scored on the ensuing possession to go ahead 44-42.
With a 46-43 lead with 32.6 seconds remaining, the Pioneers sent Downing to the free-throw line facing and one-and-one. Downing made the first attempt, but his second attempt missed to the right of the basket. Despite being covered by a defender, Morton forward Zach Christian snared the board in the lane. Ten seconds later, Matt Bernier was fouled.
Bernier, also shooting one-and-one, missed the first attempt but grabbed the rebound without being touched near the free-throw line. With 9.9 seconds remaining, Downing was fouled and converted two free throws for a 50-43 lead.
"Extremely frustrating," Hubbard said of his team's inability to grab a rebound in that final sequence. "But again, that shows that we didn't have any legs left."
The legs had been alive early.
Although they shot 37.5 percent (6 of 16) in the first half, the Pioneers grabbed a 22-19 lead at intermission by constantly attacking the basket.
Dexter Walker added 12 points for the Potters, who only had four players score. Downing scored 58 percent of his team's points. Miller led U High with 22 points, while Tyler Cook added 12.
The Pioneers committed just six turnovers. In the last three games, U High has committed 19 turnovers. In that stretch, the Pioneers are 1-2 and have lost by an average of 2.5 points per game.
"We don't have a lot of firepower on offense, so if our defense breaks down and we give up easy shots, we can't make it up on the offensive end," said Hubbard, whose team outrebounded Morton 26-21.
"We aren't a very deep team. We weren't able to get enough rest for our people that can score. It's frustrating but it's also gratifying that we can have a group of kids that don't quit and keep trying to win."