Christian Lancaster might need to start icing his shoulders more following games after carrying so much of the load for a Flagstaff Eagles team that's been dealing with an injury bug for much of the season.
Lancaster finished with a game-high 20 points and hit three key free throws with 3.5 seconds left to play in Saturday's thrilling matinee at Flagstaff High School, lifting the No. 24 Eagles to a victory over the 12th-ranked Thunderbird Chiefs.
Flagstaff (4-4, 1-3 Grand Canyon Region) dominated the glass en route to the win and Lancaster made good on one of his extra chances while at the free-throw line, where he ended his day a perfect 6 for 6. After missing his first 3-point shot with time winding down, Lancaster wound up with the ball back in his hand for another try. Although he missed the shot, he earned a trip to the charity stripe with his team down 54-52.
Thunderbird (6-2, 1-0 Skyline) had a chance to make it a three-point game with 16.5 on the clock, but a missed free throw gave the Eagles the opportunity at their second straight victory and second of a three-game homestand that started with Lancaster's career-high scoring effort on Tuesday.
The Chiefs went 15 of 29 overall at the foul line, while the Eagles finished up at 14 of 19.
"When you have size like we do, there is no excuse for giving up rebounds," Eagles head coach Nick Walton said. "It's something we work on nearly daily at practice. We go through rebounding drills not just with the bigs, but with the guards, and we stress the pride in getting the rebound, which is just as good as a 3-point shot in our eyes."
Walton added that controlling the boards is key in close games. Neither team led by six or more points in the contest between the two 4A Conference programs.
The back-and-forth battle Saturday was much different than last year's 67-36 meeting in the Valley that finished well in favor of Thunderbird. Flagstaff avenged the loss despite inconsistencies in the lineups caused by injuries, as starting guard Nick Sneezy remained on the sidelines for Saturday's game.
"I think we are a deep team. I think that in any given moment someone can go in and step up, and they've displayed that," Walton said. "And today it was Luke."
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Luke Thompson contributed seven points for the Eagles, who survived 10 total ties and four alone in the fourth quarter. His 3 with 4:40 on the clock gave Flagstaff its second of five fourth-quarter leads at 48-47.
Lancaster scored his team's final seven points of the contest, which marked Flagstaff's second win in the past five regular-season outings.
"We just ride momentum. Everybody works hard at practice, and when we get to game time it's pretty apparent that some guys are playing hot and playing hard and we ride that," Walton said.
Flagstaff also made it through the dry spells Saturday when the momentum was in the opposition's court. The Chiefs used an extended 14-2 scoring run that started late in the first quarter and lasted well into the second until Lancaster made good on another of his team's offensive rebounds with a completed three-point play at the line that made it a 26-22 game.
Thunderbird took a 27-23 lead into the break. Josh Morrow, who finished with seven points for the Eagles as well, had the only other second-quarter field goal for Flagstaff, connecting on a put-back shot under the rim for a 19-all game with 5:30 to go before the break.
Flagstaff's Tyler Centner had 14 points, benefiting one time from a Lancaster behind-the-back pass in the third quarter during a Flagstaff 7-0 burst that left the host ahead 32-29. Walter Downs added five points for the Eagles, who saw four ties and four leads in the opening quarter.
Downs left the game temporarily with a nosebleed after drawing a charge in the second quarter. He came back, however, and got the last goodbye, as he and some teammates waved goodbye to the Thunderbird fans after the win.
"The thing I love is that all of these guys are friends, this is a tight-knit group," Walton said of his team. "They get excited when somebody on the team does something good. They are cheering on their buddies, not just their teammates."
Flagstaff closes out its homestand with a return to region basketball when it takes on Mingus Union on Tuesday at 7 p.m.