BRADLEY — Bradley-Bourbonnais’ Owen Freeman isn’t old enough to drive a car yet, but the Boilers’ freshman center certainly was in the driver’s seat of the boys basketball team on Tuesday.
Freeman scored 15 points in the second half — a perfect 5-for-5 from both the field and the free-throw line — as the Boilers turned what looked early on like a double-digit loss into a resilient 71-63 victory over Manteno at Turner Gymnasium in Bradley.
“I just had to get that killer mindset and go because I realized my team needed me,” Freeman said. “I had to get buckets.”
It was the Panthers who got the buckets early, particularly Robbie Wesselhoff. The sharpshooting senior, coming off of setting a school single game record of nine 3-pointers against Coal City Saturday, splashed a trio of 3s in the first quarter as the Panthers were in control early and built an early 20-6 lead.
Panthers coach Zack Myers said Wesselhoff’s improved self-confidence and ability to get to the basket, which he did on a scoop-and-score in the second, have proven beneficial.
“I think the biggest thing for Robbie is his confidence in himself and getting stronger,” Myers said. “He’s done a really nice job working on his game of getting to the basket and and finishing in there.
“We keep saying he’s got a really quick shot and doesn’t need a lot of time and we saw that against Coal City and then a little bit tonight. The next thing for us is figuring out how to get him open.”
Equally as effective in the early going for the Panthers was their defense. As a unit, they forced seven Boilers turnovers in the opening quarter and converted them into 10 points.
“Everybody wants to think of us as shooters in an offensive team, but I think we can play just as good defense as we can offense,” Myers said. “The problem was that we didn’t play for the whole game. We had some lapses there in the second and then Freeman could do whatever he wanted in the post.”
After their slow offensive start — Jason Hartsfield was the only Boiler to score in the first quarter — the Boilers started to find a rhythm in the second. They cut their turnovers down to just two points and found a more aggressive offensive approach, led by Freeman’s eight points in the second, and cut their deficit to 30-23 by halftime.
Boilers coach Alex Renchen tipped his cap to the Panthers for their early dominance and applauded his own team for turning things around.
“I don’t want to minimize what [Manteno] did, they did a really good job,” Renchen said. “What we’ve been talking about all year long is it’s about being intentional with the things we practice everyday ... we’re gonna do what we do every day and try to do it really well on gameday.”
What the Boilers did was feed their big man, who only got better as the game went longer, while Freeman also returned the favor by facilitating offense for his teammates on cuts and drives as well.
“Obviously, our guards did a really good job of getting Owen the ball and Owen had the ability to finish,” Renchen said. “And he’s also a good passer and that puts pressure on the defense.”
The turning point came during a stretch over the final five minutes or so in the third quarter when the Boilers drew four charges and converted for points on the other end on three of them. During that stretch, a Gabe Renchen jumper gave the Boilers their first lead of the game at 39-38.
Alex Renchen said that because of the Panthers’ reliance on the dribble-drive offense, the opportunities to draw offensive fouls would be there, it was just up for his team to step up and take them.
“We talked about it before the game, that we had an opportunity to take charges,” Alex Renchen said. “It was great to see them execute that in the second half — learning to play in a system and do their job.”
That one-point lead grew to 47-43 by the end of the quarter and the Boilers held it through the duration of the fourth, thanks in large part to Freeman, who was one of four Boilers to sink a pair of free-throws down the stretch.
Freeman’s final line read as 23 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Gabe Renchen added 17 points, three rebounds and four assists. Marc Robinson had nine points, all in the second half, five rebounds and four assists.
Wesselhoff had 20 points, four rebounds and three assists in defeat. A.J. Gilliam went 3-for-4 from the 3-point line and had 13 points, a rebound and three assists. Darien Bechard had nine points and four rebounds.
The Panthers will take on Wilmington Friday on the road at 7 p.m. The Boilers will be back at home to take on Lockport at the same time Friday.