NEW ULM - After enjoying a healthy lead throughout Tuesday's game against Bethany Lutheran College, the Martin Luther College men's basketball team was suddenly in danger of having everything slip away in the final minute.
Luckily for the Knights, a player that had been perfect from the floor all night helped to script a perfect ending.
Following a 3-pointer by BLC's Garret Benson that cut MLC's game-long lead to 72-71 with 58 seconds remaining, Knights junior Kaleb Buch - who made all seven shots he took in the game - hit a pair of cold-blooded free throws on a one-and-one attempt with 33 seconds left to energize his team in the game's closing moments.
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
Martin Luther College’s Galen Holzhueter (center) takes a shot between a pair of Bethany Lutheran College defenders during the first half Tuesday at MLC in New Ulm.
Teammates Justin Eternick and Galen Eternick followed suit with successful one-and-one attempts of their own to clinch an emotional 78-71 Upper Midwest Athletic Conference victory for MLC, which sent the Knights' faithful storming onto the court at the final buzzer.
"We've been playing every team so tough through the first half, then in the second half we've kind of been falling apart," Buch said. "Today we had awesome support from our fans, and as a team we just kind of put it together as a win. Everybody hit shots down the stretch and made big plays, it wasn't just one guy."
The Knights led by as many as 18 points in the first half and didn't allow the Vikings to come any closer than four points back until Benson's late 3, which took a towering bounce off the front of the rim before falling back down for a swish.
After suffering an 85-49 loss against BLC on Jan. 8, MLC wasn't about to let its chance at payback get away.
"The first time we played them we were on our heels, they put it to us," Buch said. "This game, we came out and had great fan support, we knew starting the second half of the season we really needed to get a good start, get a win, get rolling to try to make the conference tournament, and we came and did what we needed to tonight."
The Knights exploded right out of the gate, taking a 7-0 lead after the first 1:24 of the game en route to building a healthy lead that they retained throughout the first half.
Galen Holzhueter buoyed the Knights' early efforts, scoring 12 of the team's first 24 points. He finished with a team-high 26 points.
The Knights increased their lead to 36-18 before the Vikings rallied to make the score 39-33 late in the half. However, a pair of baskets by Buch and a putback at the buzzer by Josh Danell gave MLC a 45-34 lead at halftime.
The second half was much more closely contested, with the Vikings battling back to cut MLC's lead to four points on multiple occasions.
The Knights fought off scores of 59-55, 64-60 and 70-66 before Benson's late 3-pointer set the stage for the game's dramatic finish.
Buch finished with 19 points, including three 3-pointers, and tied Danell with a team-high seven rebounds. Eternick had nine points and Luke Rothe contributed eight points and a team-high six assists.
The Knights (3-16 overall, 2-6 in UMAC play) will look to keep their momentum going when they hit the road to take on Northland on Friday and St. Scholastica on Saturday.
"I think across the conference there are going to be a lot of people who are going to wonder what happened in New Ulm," MLC head coach Jim Unke said. "I think a lot of them know, and I think maybe that the second half of the conference season, if they know we're going to start finishing games, I think we put everybody on notice that we're going to come after them."