Matthews soaks it in, swishes ‘em in from line: Hits 6-of-6 free throws in final 39 seconds

Smyrna’s Caleb Matthews drives against Sanford’s Sean Williams in the first quarter during the state semi finals boys basketball championship at the University of Delaware on Thursday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

NEWARK — Caleb Matthews stepped to the free throw line and soaked in all the attention from a packed Bob Carpenter Center.

The noise level bubbled as the Smyrna High senior went through his free throw routine.

A couple of dribbles, a look up at the rim and a release followed by a swish.

The scene repeated itself six times in the final 39 seconds on Thursday as Smyrna held on for a 47-45 victory over Sanford in the DIAA state semifinals. The Eagles advanced to the state championship game for the second year in a row.

Matthews finished as Smyrna’s leading scorer with 18 points. He went a perfect 13-of-13 from the free throw line.

“That’s something you dream about, getting the ball and all the attention is on you,” Matthews said. “That’s what you put in the work for. You shouldn’t mess that up if you put in enough work. That’s what you live for, to shoot those shots at the end of the game.”

The third-seeded Eagles will play ninth seed St. Elizabeth in the championship Saturday at noon at the Bob Carpenter Center.

Matthews called the venue his favorite gym. He has not missed a free throw here in the last two years and made seven three-pointers in Saturday’s quarterfinal win against Sussex Tech.

With Smyrna on top 41-39 in the closing seconds, Smyrna coach Andrew Mears repeatedly called for the inbound play to go to Matthews as Sanford intentionally fouled to send him to the line.

“At that point I’m at peace,” Mears said. “He’s shown it before. I don’t know if he’s even missed a free throw at the Bob in his four years. We trust him. We’ll be with him whether he makes it or not, but the percentages are in his favor.”

Matthews has been a 90-percent free throw shooter throughout his career at Smyrna.

He said he begins every practice with 20 free throws, trying to envision the pressure-packed sce-nario which unfolded Thursday. The real work on his free throw shooting occurs in the summer where he regularly attempts between 100 and 200 shots from the line.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re at the park or wherever you’re at,” Matthews said. “You’re dreaming about that moment at the Bob Carpenter Center with 5,000 people staring at you.”

Jaymeir Garnett gave Smyrna the lead for good on a putback with 1:17 left. Matthews’ first two free throw extended the advantage to 43-39 with 39 seconds remaining.

Jyare Davis brought Sanford within two on a dunk before Sanford fouled Matthews during the inbounds play. Matthews drained two more and Sanford responded with a layup by Nnanna Njoku.

The final time Matthews was fouled there was actually two fouls called on the play. One was on Sanford for holding Matthews, the other was on Sanford for tackling Greg Bloodsworth.

Matthews marched right to the line as players protested the foul on Bloodsworth occurred first. Matthews though never budged and after a conference the referees ruled Matthews was the shooter.

“The referees talked and they got it right,” Mears said. “He was probably sure what the call was.”

Bloodsworth was on the ground and had no idea what the call was.

“I thought they called the foul on me, so I was ready to shoot the ball,” said Bloodsworth, an 83-perecent free-throw shooter. “But then Caleb walked up and they said Caleb had the shot.

“It’s a great feeling seeing him shoot the ball and seeing the ball go in. When we see that, we feel confident.”

“I trust Greg but at the end of the game you really want the ball in your hands,” Matthews said. “I’m sure he feels the same way. It’s great to have two guys who can shoot 85 percent from the line. It’s easy to close out games then.”

Once Matthews made his final two free throws, Sanford scored a layup with five seconds to go and the Eagles let the clock run out.

Matthews had little margin for error on his final six attempts, each came in a one-and-one situation.

“I know he’s going to knock them down,” Garnett said. “Everybody on the team trusts him. He’s a big-time free throw shooter, so we already know it’s going in.”

Smyrna went 16-of-17 from the line to overcome a 3-of-24 mark from three-point range. Mat-thews shot an uncharacteristic 2-of-9 from the floor but made up for it with his performance at the line.

The Eagles only hit five field goals on 31 attempts (16 percent) in the first half. The second half went much better though, Smyrna shot 42 percent in the third quarter to overcome a 25-17 halftime deficit.

“We’ve been in the situation before where we haven’t seen the ball go through the hoop as much as we would like,” Mears said. “There’s enough experience in that locker room to weather the storm. We don’t end the game at halftime, we know for four quarters to stick to the gameplan and we’ll eventually see the ball go through the basket.”

Reach staff writer Tim Mastro at tmastro@newszap.com

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