Home Local Sports Last-second free throw sends Smyrna past Salesianum, into DIAA boys basketball championship:...

Last-second free throw sends Smyrna past Salesianum, into DIAA boys basketball championship: Photo gallery

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Justin Molen led all scorers with 21 points.

WILMINGTON – Salesianum trailed most of the night in its DIAA boys semifinal basketball game against Smyrna on March 11 at the Father John Birkenheuer Gymnasium, taking a few small leads in the fourth quarter before knotting the score at 42 on two Justin Molen free throws with 9.5 seconds left. But a controversial foul call on the second-seeded Sals led to the game-winning free throw and a 43-42 win for the Eagles.

Players from both teams battled for a loose ball under the Smyrna net in the final seconds, and Salesianum was whistled for a foul with six-tenths of a second left. Eagles big man Moo Salako missed the first shot, but his second found the net. A desperation heave by the Sals was short, and Smyrna advanced to the final for the third time since 2017.

Smyrna, the No. 6 seed, will battle top-seeded Sanford on Saturday afternoon at Dover High School. The Warriors outlasted No. 4 Tower Hill, 40-39, on Thursday night.

The Sals trailed by 10 at the half and seven when the third quarter ended, but they continued their comeback as the fourth quarter progressed.

Led by Molen, the Sals stormed back. The opening minutes included a Molen field goal, and he followed that one with a two-pointer and a three-pointer following Smyrna turnovers. The Sals finally tied the game at 36 on a layup from Brett O’Hara, and the gym was as loud as it’s been all season. Robert Wiley hit a free throw to put the Eagles back on top by a point, but Caulk answered to make it 38-37 Salesianum with three minutes to go.

Forty seconds later, Ethan Hinds added two free throws to push the lead to three, but, trailing by a point, the Eagles received a contested corner three from Majesti Carter to take the 42-40 lead. It stayed that way until 9.5 seconds remained, when Molen was fouled in the lane. He calmly knocked down the free throws, setting the stage for Salako’s late heroics.

The second half was in marked contrast to the first, when Smyrna shut the Salesianum offense down with smothering defense. The Sals also struggled with turnovers, which they committed on their first four possessions of the night. The Eagles, not normally a long-distance team, found a groove from beyond the arc in the first two quarters, building a double-digit lead in front of a stunned home crowd.

Elisha Gregory did most of the damage in the first quarter for the Eagles. He opened the scoring two minutes in with a layup, and before the eight minutes had expired, he added a three and another two. The Sals, meanwhile, could only muster two field goals, one each from Molen and Rasheen Caulk.

Elijah Credle led the way in the second, demonstrating proficiency from outside and inside. He drained a long three and two mid-range jumpers. Salako had his only other points of the night in the second, pulling up and hitting a surprising three-pointer midway through. The Eagles added three points on free throws after a Salesianum player was called for a personal foul and a technical foul. The score was 25-15 at the half.

Molen heated up after the break, leading the Salesianum comeback. He hit a triple as the Sals scored seven of the first eight points of the third. Smyrna responded, however, with a bucket from Gregory, followed by a three from Credle to quickly push the lead to nine. The Eagles led by seven after three.

Molen finished with 21 points, the lone Salesianum player in double figures. The Sals finished the season 12-4.

For the Eagles, Gregory and Credle each scored 13. Smyrna takes a 19-0 record into its championship game with Sanford. The Eagles won the title in 2017, while the Warriors were the champions in 2019.

Photos by Nick Halliday.