Whatever tonic head coach Kory Kiekhoefer was selling at halftime, he should bottle it and patent it.
After a listless effort in the first half and staring at a 38-26 halftime deficit, New Life Academy's Eagles stormed back to win a 68-60 thriller in overtime Thursday, Feb. 1.
The Eagles looked out-of-sync at both ends of the court in the first half against visiting Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity. The visitors shot the lights out from three-point range - making eight 3-point goals in the first half. Offensively, while New Life was getting good shots against the Bulldogs zone, they weren't falling.
But little by little in the second half, the Eagles chipped away, gradually catching the Bulldogs at the end of regulation. The Eagles started playing tighter, better defense that took the Bulldogs out of their comfort zone. That in turn led to an offense that started passing up good shots for great ones.
"The first half we came out flat, we weren't prepared for their shooting," senior center Drew Wynia said. "They shoot the ball really well in the first half. In the second half, we just came out - we said we have confidence in ourselves - we're going to come out and have energy and we're going to play this game to the best of our abilities. We're going to play our game and not play to their level."
New Life senior guard Mark Rygh nailed a clutch three-point field goal in the final minute of regulation to tie the game at 58-all. Both teams then had chances to score but committed turnovers to force the four-minute overtime.
"I thought we just increased our defensive pressure," coach Kiekhoefer said. "The first half we got caught not having active hands on the defensive end and so we talked about it at halftime - that we had to crank up our energy, crank up our enthusiasm for defense and that's what makes this team go. When we play good defense, the offense comes and the team plays really good basketball. It starts on defense."
Senior post players Eli Gorter and Wynia opened the overtime with baskets for the Eagles. Wynia grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back in for a 64-60 New Life lead. Gorter then salted the game away with two free throws with 36 seconds left to make it a 66-60 advantage.
Everything worked better in the second half and the overtime for the Eagles. Instead of making turnovers against Lester Prairie's aggressive zone defense, they forced them. Instead of missing shots, they hit them.
"I think that's the difference between good shots and great shots," Kiekhoefer said. "In the second half we figured out what a great shot was and played to our strength, which is our post and we played through our posts and so when we got an open three it was through a post kick out. And so we played through our post and trusted them to carry us in the second half."
After roaring back to tie the game in regulation, New Life dominated the overtime, outscoring Lester Prairie 10-2.
It was a classic comeback. The Eagles outscored the Bulldogs 32-20 in the second half and a combined 42-22 in the second half and overtime.
"We knew what we had to do," Gorter said. "They were playing packed zone and we had to get it inside and we just fought to get it inside. We did do better in the second half. A lot more ball movement, quick reversals, getting it inside more, that really helped us.
On defense, they got in the faces of the Bulldogs and eliminated their long-range shooting. After giving up eight three-point field goals in the first half, the Eagles allowed just one after the break.
"It felt so good to just say we can do this, we're back," Gorter added. "We are ready for these next teams."
It was also a much-needed bounce-back win for the Eagles, who lost a 48-46 heartbreaker to Spectrum Feb. 30.
New Life improved to 6-3 in the Minnesota Christian Athletic Association and 11-6 on the season.
Lester Prairie dropped to 2-5 in conference play and 5-12 overall.
Rygh led a balanced New Life offense with 18 points. Rygh had four three-point field goals, including three in the first half where his offense basically kept the Eagles within shouting distance. Tate Hullet added 16 for the Eagles, Wynia scored 12, and Michael Reader and Gorter had nine each.
Next up for New Life is a non-conference contest Monday at South St. Paul (5-11).