By HOWARD SENZELL
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Maria Carrillo’s basketball team shoots free throws at the beginning, middle and end of every practice. In the fourth quarter Wednesday night, that practice paid off as the Pumas rallied to defeat Montgomery, 44-39.
Carrillo didn’t score a field goal in the final five minutes but converted 11 free throws.
“Practicing free throws is a ritual,” first-year coach Chris Walton explained. “We have a drill where each player shoots 10 and we keep track. We have six goals in the gym and we spread out and use all six.
“I keep telling the girls that you lose games by missing free throws and layups.”
In the fourth quarter, Aaliyah Sowards and Vai Thompson both hit all four of their foul shots while Mikaela Francis was 2-for-6 and Myranda Gradney made one of two.
The Pumas’ defense was also stellar in the late going. Montgomery went the final seven minutes without a field goal. The Vikings only scored three points in the period.
Carrillo’s man-to-man defense kept Montgomery from getting good looks at the basket and every shot was contested.
The Vikings appeared on their way to victory by going on a 7-0 run at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth. Ashlee Wilson’s layup with 7 minutes remaining gave her team a 38-31 lead.
Carrillo caught up to tie the game 39-39 with 2:04 to go on two free throws by Thompson.
Thirty seconds later, the junior gave her team the lead for good with two more points from the foul line.
Sowards iced the victory with another two from the line in the final seconds. “I’m so proud of the girls,” Walton said. “Both for the way they stayed calm and shot their free throws and the way they played defense against a very good team. In the last three minutes, they played their best defense of the season.”
Montgomery coach Steve Bell gave Carrillo credit. “They played hard and are a scrappy team,” he said. “We kinda went flat in the fourth quarter. I thought there were a few times in critical situations that we were fouled and there was no whistle.”
For the night, the Pumas hit 17-of-25 free throws while Montgomery converted 12-of-23.
Carrillo hit four-of-five from the field to open the game and led 11-7 after one quarter.
When the Pumas went scoreless for the first four minutes of the second quarter, Montgomery went ahead, 18-13.
Back-to-back treys by Tawny Pabros got the home team close, and it was 21-21 at halftime.
Francis led Carrillo with 10 points. Sowards, in her first game since being sidelined by injury, had eight.
Chantal Evett led the Vikings with 14 while Wilson contributed 10.
The Pumas’ record is now 10-5 and 4-2 in NBL.
Montgomery drops to 12-5 and 4-2.
It was a night of upsets in the league. Santa Rosa started the night atop the standings but lost to Casa Grande. With a win, Montgomery could’ve moved into a first-place tie.