Lebanon s Mark Pyles lines up what would be the game-winning free throw with eight seconds left in Friday s Section One-Two crossover clash with Hempfield
Lebanon s Mark Pyles lines up what would be the game-winning free throw with eight seconds left in Friday s Section One-Two crossover clash with Hempfield at LHS. Pyles missed the first try badly but nailed the second one to lift Lebanon to a key 44-43 victory. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS JEREMY LONG)
At times, its lack of fundamentally-sound play was downright maddening.

At other times, an absence of composure joined it .

At still other junctures, dreadful foul shooting made an appearance as well.

But through it all, the Lebanon High boys' basketball team never stopped fighting, competing or defending.

And because they didn't, the Cedars now have a reason to believe in their season again.

Mired in a disheartening five-game losing streak that was threatening any and all of its postseason hopes, Lebanon didn't exactly appear primed for a turnaround victory with perennial tough customer Hempfield in the house at LHS on Friday night.

But that's exactly what the Cedars got, stunning the Black Knights, 44-43, behind an all-heart team defensive effort and Mark Pyles' game-winning, tiebreaking free throw with 8.3 seconds left.

Raise your hand if you saw that one coming.

Then again, it doesn't matter what you thought, only what the Cedars believed.

"After the skid we've been on, this was huge for us," said a relieved and thoroughly pleased Lebanon head coach Tim Speraw. "For a number of reasons - getting back in the win column, keeping pace in our section, getting some points toward districts. It was just big, and most of all for the confidence of our kids, just getting back on the right track."

At 6-9 overall and 4-7 in Section Two, the Cedars still have a great deal of work to do to salvage a season that has but six games remaining in it.

But if it can summon the rest of the season what it did on Friday, reaping some tangible rewards in 2012-13 is not out of the question.

It would help if senior guard Drey Murray could duplicate the big-shot-making 17-point effort he produced against Hempfield.

Or if lanky senior forward Josh Spaulding could continue to wreak havoc defensively and on the boards and still contribute 10 points as he did with the Section One Black Knights (9-6, 7-4 Section One) on the court.

And certainly more productive efforts from frontcourters Jorian Ginnetto and Blayde Reich (eight points apiece) would aid the cause immeasurably, as would continued clutch play from role players Pyles and Kristian Sanchez, who clinched the win with a strip and steal in the closing seconds.

"They've had some injuries, and they've lost a few ball games they could have won," said Hempfield coach Danny Walck of the Cedars. "We were well aware of that, and we knew they would be really tough here, because Tim's a great coach, he does a great job of preparing them.

Lebanon s Josh Spaulding splits Hempfield defenders Dylan Bleacher, left, and Brandon Criswell during the Cedars  44-43 victory on Friday night. Spaulding
Lebanon s Josh Spaulding splits Hempfield defenders Dylan Bleacher, left, and Brandon Criswell during the Cedars 44-43 victory on Friday night. Spaulding finished with 10 points and was a huge presence defensively in the contest. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS JEREMY LONG)
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The Cedars were tough and they were prepared, but it looked like Hempfield was even more so after it opened up a 13-5 lead late in the first quarter behind wingman Drew Johnson (12 points).

But in what would become a recurring theme, Lebanon simply wouldn't allow the visitors to fully assert themselves.

Though Murray, Ginnetto and Spaulding all provided key second-quarter buckets that allowed Lebanon to forge a 21-21 halftime tie, defense - and plenty of it - was the reason Hempfield didn't run away and hide after the quick start.

"It's been our staple all year," Speraw said. "Defense has kept us in games, and tonight was no different."

That, and an even more impressive display of pure effort and guts. The Cedars didn't always play well - especially against a smothering halfcourt trap Hempfield employed in the second half that netted a slew of sloppy turnovers - but they did always play, refusing to give in to any "here we go again" thoughts.

"If there's one thing we're gonna do, win or lose, it's fight to the end," Speraw said. "We were missing that a game or two ago, and we really sat down and (talked about it). It's been a focus of ours, to get back to playing Lebanon basketball."

Lebanon played its best ball from midway through the third quarter to early in the fourth while turning a tense 27-25 lead into a 38-31 advantage on a Murray bucket off a loose ball scramble with 4:50 left.

But the fun was just beginning. Although the Cedars weren't laughing after Hempfield took advantage of their aforementioned struggles against the trap to forge a 40-40 tie on a driving hoop by Dylan Bleacher with 59 seconds left.

Lebanon would regain the lead at 43-40 on a pressure-soaked '3' by Murray with 47 ticks left, but more free throw woes allowed Hempfield to pull even again - at 43-43 - on a runner by Bleacher (12 points) with 25 seconds to go.

"It was definitely a tough game," Speraw said. "Coach Walck always has his guys prepared, and they fight to the end as well. It was a great game, I'm just glad we came out on top."

There was some doubt that would happen, though, after Pyles bricked the first of two free throw tries with 8.3 to go after getting to the line via a beautiful set-up from Spaulding.

But the Cedars' quarterback during football season was right on target with the second try.

"Coach (assistant Carlos) Sanchez told him, 'You're the quarterback, the rim's the receiver, and you just overthrew the first guy,'" Speraw said with a chuckle of the bench's reaction to Pyles missing the first nail-biting free throw. "The second one was a touchdown."

But Hempfield still had time for a game-winning drive and the chance to extend Lebanon's misery.

Appropriately, though, a huge defensive play saved the Cedars after Sanchez swiped the ball from Bleacher near the foul line and dribbled joyously upcourt as time expired.

"It's all about different people stepping up on different nights," Speraw said. "Tonight, Mark knocked down a foul shot, Kristian got a steal, a couple guys got huge rebounds. Everybody did a little bit of something, and that's what it's all about."

"I couldn't be prouder of the effort of any of our guys. They fought to the end and played their hearts out."