Levi Sheldon knows what the Hayden boys basketball team will be doing Monday at practice.
"We'll be shooting free throws," Sheldon said. "I don't know how many. A lot."
Sheldon and the Tigers shot just 7-21 from the charity stripe Saturday night, including a paltry 3-12 in the final six minutes of their game against Meeker. Because of their free-throw shooting woes, a game the Tigers had well in hand almost got away from them. But after watching Meeker cut an 11-point deficit to just two with 1:49 remaining, Hayden held off the Cowboys' rally and pulled out a 43-41 win.
"(The Cowboys) picked up their defensive intensity there at the end," Hayden coach Shawn Baumgartner said. "They did a great job of taking away what we were doing. I don't know how we won going seven for 21 at the free-throw line, but I'm glad we did."
With the win, Hayden closed the regular season with a record of 16-3 overall and 5-2 in District 5. The Tigers, seeded second, will host a district playoff game Saturday, most likely against Plateau Valley.
Meeker, who beat Hayden earlier in the season, finished 12-4 and 4-3.
"It's good to beat them because they beat us earlier this year," Sheldon said. "And we stayed undefeated at home."
The win was a lot closer than Hayden thought it was going to be. With six minutes left, Hayden led 40-29 and appeared to be cruising. But that's when things fell apart for the Tigers.
First, Cowboy Luis Villapando scored inside to make it 40-31. Then, after a Hayden turnover, Meeker guard Orrin Johnson hit a 3-pointer that closed the gap to 40-34. A steal by Johnson led to a layup by Koley Borchard that closed the gap to 40-36. The Cowboys then picked off a Hayden pass, and Villapando scored to make it a two-point game with 1:49 left.
Hayden guard Cam Whiteman was the only Tiger who could find the mark down the stretch, connecting on three of four free throws to give the Tigers a 43-38 lead.
Johnson, who finished with 17 points on 5 of 12 shooting from three-point range, then connected on a long three to bring the Cowboys within 43-41 with half a second left. But Hayden's Evan Hilling was able to in-bound the ball to the Hayden end of the court, and the game ended.
"We relaxed down the stretch," Sheldon said. "We knew we needed to keep playing hard, but it just didn't happen. Still, we won, and that's what counts."
Hilling paced the Tigers, scoring 16 points on eight of 11 shooting. He also grabbed 16 rebounds. Sheldon added 10 points and five boards, and Keenan Bruchez had 10 point and two rebounds.
Johnson's 17 led the Cowboys. Borchard had 10 points.
Hayden shot the ball well, connecting on 18 of 36 shots. The Tigers were most impressive in the first half, when they were 10 of 17 from the floor.
The Tigers also were strong on the defensive end, holding the Cowboys to 12 of 50 shooting from the floor. In the first half, Meeker connected on just four of 25 shots. Fortunately for the Cowboys, they made 10 of 15 free throws and only trialed 23-20 at halftime.
Hayden out-rebounded Meeker 27-20 in the game.