RIPON — Rod Wright could sense this loss was coming.
That feeling of trepidation only grew worse as Ripon’s regular-season finale with last-place Escalon dragged on and on, one miserable free-throw attempt at a time.
The playoff-bound Indians were a woeful 15 of 37 from the free-throw line and let a seven-point lead slip away late in a 62-59 loss to the arch-rival Cougars.
Mario Roach and Aaron Paschini each had long 3-point attempts in the final few seconds, but neither came close as the cold-shooting Indians sunk even further into their deep freeze.
The loss comes at an inopportune time, too.
Ripon (6-4, 15-12) had a chance to lock up the Trans-Valley League’s No. 2 playoff seed with a win. However, the loss, coupled with Riverbank’s (6-4, 10-15) 63-52 win over Hilmar on Tuesday evening, drops the Indians into third-place.
Wright won’t argue that position. His team has lost two straight and are virtually assured a road game when the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs begin. Brackets and first-round pairings will be announced today.
“We’re just in a shooting slump right now that’s pretty incredible for a few our players,” Wright said. “We just can’t get out of it.”
The Cougars (2-8, 11-16) treated Tuesday’s tilt like a one-game postseason -- and celebrated like there was a trophy at stake.
Escalon had won just one game in Trans-Valley League play but wasn’t lacking in confidence after losing four TVL games by four points or less, a ledger that includes Ripon Christian, Riverbank and Ripon.
No doubt smarting from those losses, the Cougars scored 19 points in the final 4 minutes, 3 seconds and shot 8 of 9 from the free-throw line to deliver a painful blow to the Indians.
Players and fans stormed Ripon’s home floor, throwing water and their bodies into the air.
“We lost this game at the free-throw line,” Wright said. “We can’t shoot free throws. We knew that. We’re just a horrible shooting team.
“Hats off to them,” he later added. “They made their free throws.”
Sam Lattig led all scorers with 27 points and Chapman Mello had 16 points, including two 3-pointers during Escalon’s final kick.
Lattig scored 16 points in the first half as Escalon outscored Ripon 15-10 in the second quarter and led 27-23 at the intermission.
By then, Wright could see the writing on the wall: Ripon was just 7 of 18 from the free-throw line, Roach and Paschini had been limited to one combined point and one player had been parked on the bench after an ill-advised dunk attempt.
“(Mello) and (Lattig) did a good job of making shots and hit some 3s when they needed them,” Wright said. “We had our chance, but we just did some youthful things at the end.”
The Indians trailed 40-39 at the start of the fourth quarter but played their best basketball during a four-minute stretch.
Ripon used an 11-3 run to build a 50-43 lead with 4:14 to go. Pachini pushed Ripon into the lead, 44-43, with a deep 3 in front of the Indians’ student section.
One minute later, Roach connected on his first field goal of the night -- a straightaway 3 to make it 47-43. Cold for most of the night, Paschini rebounded his own miss to cap the flurry.
An active post helped buoy the attack. David Onochie had 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Cody Haines provided a defensive presence with 12 rebounds and five blocked shots.
Victory seemed in hand, but Ripon’s inability to knock down free throws and Escalon’s quick-strike offense provided the plot twist late.
The Indians were 7 of 15 from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter and were outscored 19-9 over the final four minutes.
Wright’s frustration was compounded by a confusing final possessions for the Indians. Trailing 60-59, Roach rushed a 3-pointer from the corner coming out of a timeout. The shot nicked the front of the rim and was rebounded by Lattig with 2.1 seconds left.
“The play was completely screwed up,” Wright said.
After a pair of free throws by Lattig, Paschini’s desperate half-court heave banged off the backboard and out of harm’s way.
Cole Stevens paced Ripon with 14 points, but the sophomore had just four after half. Paschini scored 11 of his 12 points in the second half. Roach had all nine of his points in the fourth.
Ripon Christian 66,
A 29-point outburst in the fourth quarter helped the Knights (9-1, 19-5) bury visiting Hughson (4-6, 14-11) for good.
Sean Broker scored 22 points to lead all scorers, while Danny Vander Molen and Jake Schollenberg added 12 and 10, respectively, for Ripon Christian. Tyler May led Hughson with 20 points.
Ripon 44, Escalon 37
Rhet Herrin had 15 points and three steals and Zach Hansen netted seven for Ripon, which closed TVL with an 8-4 record.
Ripon 56, Escalon 34
Three players scored in double figures for Ripon: Jake Kamatsu and Dylan Sexton with 11 apiece, and Donni Cooksey with 10. Nathan Vaught had eight for the Indians, 6-4 in the TVL.