CEDAR FALLS — AJ Green drew upon his basketball past, and provided a glimpse into the future Tuesday night on his unique home court.
The son of Northern Iowa’s longtime assistant coach, Kyle Green, AJ has spent countless hours of his childhood shooting inside an empty McLeod Center — dreaming of an opportunity to one day put on a show in front of a crowd.
Once that moment finally arrived, the Cedar Falls senior knew exactly what to do. Green knocked down six 3-pointers and made all 12 of his attempts from the free-throw line, finishing with 32 points to help Cedar Falls reach its second state tournament in three years with a 62-56 Class 4A substate win over Dubuque Hempstead.
Green ignored the hastily assembled tape placed down for a temporary high school 3-point line and showcased limitless range, swishing the majority of his treys from near NBA distance. His free throws were often the product of quick drives.
“This is everything I wanted,” said Green, whose next game in this venue will be playing for his dad as a member of UNI’s basketball team. “When I heard we were going to be playing here for the final, that was huge. I got super excited.
“I’ve been shooting here since first grade, maybe. I don’t know. It’s been forever. Hopefully this is just the first of many wins in here.”
There’s plenty of time for Green to ponder that future. Right now his focus is shifted squarely on making next week’s state tournament in Des Moines a memorable occasion.
“Hopefully, we can go there now and win it,” said Green, who hit the game-winning shot to help the Tigers qualify previously in 2016. “That’s the ultimate goal. It’s been a dream for four years here. Hopefully, we can make that happen.”
It took more than Green for Cedar Falls (18-5) to extend its season.
Dubuque Hempstead (17-6), coming off a 2017 state tournament run, had defeated Cedar Falls on a buzzer-beater two weeks ago in Dubuque. Wil Courtney established himself inside with 10 second-quarter points and guard Lucas Duax was brilliant throughout with 29 as he carried the Mustangs’ offense during the second half.
Cedar Falls trailed 32-28 at intermission — and after taking a 40-38 third-quarter lead on a deep Green 3-pointer — Duax’s personal 7-2 run placed the Tigers down 45-44 midway into the fourth stanza.
That’s when Cedar Falls’ toughness came to life. Reese Gardner recorded one of several key offensive rebounds and put it back for a traditional three-point play that gave the Tigers an edge they never relinquished.
Ben Gerdes added a timely offensive board off a missed free throw with 1:18 left, and Jackson Frericks hit a pair of free throws to make it a two-possession game as he finished 7 of 8 from the line over the final minute.
“We knew there was going to be a lot of attention to AJ so we had to do our end and pick up the loose boards,” Gardner said. “We’ve had hard work together and it’s paid off.”
Cedar Falls coach Ryan Schultz couldn’t have been more proud of the toughness his team exuded against a talented Hempstead squad that offered little margin for error.
“It was just a war,” Schultz said. “We’re battled-tested this year. These kids showed a lot of resiliency, especially in that second half.
“We had a little bit of foul trouble. We were a little bit out of sorts, a little out of rhythm early on. We regained that rhythm and kept clawing and battling. That says a lot about this basketball team.”
Ced. Falls 62, Hempstead 56
DUBUQUE HEMPSTEAD (17-6) — Max Duax 2-5 0-0 4, Max Muehring 0-1 0-0 0, Lucas Duax 10-12 8-9 29, Wil Courtney 5-9 2-2 12, Keith Johnson 4-13 2-2 11, Justin Blackman 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-36 15-16 56.
CEDAR FALLS (18-5) — AJ Green 7-16 12-12 32, Logan Wolf 1-6 3-6 5, Ben Gerdes 0-4 2-2 2, Jackson Frericks 2-4 7-8 12, Jack Campbell 1-2 0-0 2, Reese Gardner 3-3 1-1 7, Mason Abbas 1-1 0-0 2, Chase Courbat 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 15-36 25-29 62.
Hempstead 15 17 6 18 — 56
Cedar Falls 11 17 14 20 — 62
3-point goals — Hempstead 2 (L. Duax, Johnson). Cedar Falls 7 (Green 6, Frericks). Total fouls — Hempstead 14, Cedar Falls 15. Fouled out — none.