By BRAD KEITH
(February 22, 2017) — Dublin spent the majority of its season on the road, playing in tough environments against tough teams.
The toughness the Lions built in doing so may have been the only thing saving them in a Region I-3A bi-district playoff against Merkel Tuesday evening.
Dublin saw a 10-point lead cut to just two in the final minute, but the 6-3A district champion Lions held on for a 73-70 win behind 22 points from Rayce Jackson and 20 more from Brady Moore in a 73-70 win.
It’s the first playoff win since 2012 for Dublin, which faces No. 8 Peaster Friday at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Granbury.
Dublin led 50-44 before a wild fourth quarter that saw 49 combined points.
“It got a little crazy, but that’s kind of who we are,” said second-year head Lion Will Parker. “When we were still ahead by two near the end I was confident we could get it done and we did.”
Dublin led 61-51 following a pair of Rayce Jackson free throws. But Dublin was just 6-13 from the line in the fourth and just 15-27 overall, helping Merkel stay in the game.
The Badgers fought back quickly with a 10-2 run, concluded by a 3-pointer that cut it to 63-61.
Then came perhaps the biggest play for Dublin in a season that’s been full of them. Gabe Garcia made the first of two free throws but missed the second only to see Moore, the senior leader of the Lions, grab an offensive rebound and immediately score the put back.
The odd 3-point play was followed an exchange of lightning-quick drives for layups that left Dublin leading 68-63.
Dublin dominated the backboards, 55-40, but surrendered a big one when Merkel knocked down a second-chance bucket to make it a three-point game, then the Lions missed twice at the foul stripe.
Josh Hanes, who gave Dublin a third-double digit scorer with 10 points, grabbed a key board and split a pair at the line to make it 69-65. The Lions collected a defensive board off a quick 3-point try from Merkel, but missed two more free throws and saw Merkel hit two after being fouled with 47 seconds remaining, trimming the margin to 69-67.
Merkel called timeout to set up its defense, forcing Dublin to call one while trapped in the backcourt. But when the Lions got it in they also cashed it in with Jackson, a junior who was 9-12 from the floor, driving for a bucket and a 71-67 advantage.
The two-possession lead was short-lived with Merkel beating the Dublin defense back for a fast-break basket with 24 seconds remaining. Dublin missed at the other end and Merke had a possession try and tie or take the lead.
The Badgers drew a blocking foul and got to the line, missing the first free throw and making the second to cut it to 71-70.
But Moore made the biggest shots of the night from the spot where Dublin had struggled most in the final stanza. He was fouled with 5.7 seconds on the clock and calmly knocked down both, forcing Merkel to attempt a game-tying 3. It missed and sophomore Jacob Owen, who played significant minutes off the bench, snared the board for Dublin to end it.
“We got a little out of everyone, and that’s what it takes at this time of year,” said Parker. “Our point guard, Gabe Garcia had to leave in the second quarter with a gash over his eye, and we had some foul trouble, so we had guys like Jacob Owen, playing more minutes than we expected and contributing. It was a great team win.”
Jeremiah Martinez scored eight points, Brayden Burleson six, Garcia, who returned in the second half, had four, Elton Galbreath two and Owen one for the Lions, who face another tough task in Peaster.
“Peaster is Peaster, everyone knows who they are. They’ve always been there it seems, and they’re number eight in the state for a reason,” Parker said. “But we have gotten to where we are for a reason, too, and we’re playing good basketball right now, so I’m excited for the opportunity.”