The Newark Catholic High School boys basketball team is working at the free-throw line during the final practices leading to an MSL-Ohio Division showdown Tuesday at Lakewood.

The Newark Catholic High School boys basketball team is working at the free-throw line during the final practices leading to an MSL-Ohio Division showdown Tuesday at Lakewood.

"It's still a weakness and still something we're working hard to overcome," coach Drew Meister said. "We've struggled at the line so we're devoting more time to it, definitely."

There's a good chance the second-round matchup between Licking County's most improved teams will be closer than the first game, which the Green Wave won 62-42 on Dec. 10. If so, the outcome could hinge on which team fares better at the line.

The Green Wave converted 18 of 26 attempts (69.2 percent) in the first meeting and had a better percentage in only four other games through the first 11 games. Ranked fourth in the latest Division IV state poll led by defending state champion New Knoxville, Newark Catholic was 10-1 overall and 5-1 in the league entering a game last Friday against Granville. Its season free-throw percentage was 63.6.

That's respectable but not necessarily championship material and was a number boosted significantly by the efforts of a few, primarily James Moerman (32 of 40, 80 percent).

"We've been all over the place. We were four of 13 (30.8 percent) against Bexley (62-42 win Jan. 9), eight of 17 (47.1 percent) against Columbus Academy (67-66 loss Jan. 17) but 90 percent (18 of 20) against (Toledo Central Catholic in a 52-45 victory Dec. 30)," said Meister, who is in his third season. "It's either been feast or famine it seems. There's just been no consistency.

"I'd like to see more of our guards get opportunities. Part of our trouble is guys getting to the line aren't necessarily our best free-throw shooters but we never want them shying away from challenging people, which would just disrupt what we're trying to do offensively."

The Lancers responded as well as they could to that early loss. They had a nine-game winning streak and were 10-1 overall and 5-1 in the MSL-Ohio entering a game last Friday at Whitehall.

Confidence, a big home crowd and a healthy Ryan Davis might be their biggest allies. Davis, a 6-foot-4 forward and one of seven seniors on the team, was averaging 16.4 points through 11 games. He sat out the fourth quarter with a mild ankle sprain as Lakewood defeated Heath 69-59 on Jan. 17.

The Lancers are fifth in the Division II area coaches poll led by DeSales, even though three of the higher-ranked teams have more losses.

"The biggest believers in our program are still the kids," second-year coach Zach Parr said. "These kids, they're just so determined to keep working hard and put us back on the basketball map."

Defensively, the Green Wave was yielding 49.5 points and the Lancers 50.1 through 11 games. Both coaches see those numbers as a big reason for their success, but the Green Wave had four players combine to make six 3-pointers in the first meeting and the Lancers have given up more points just once all year. That came in a 71-68 victory over Academy on Dec. 19.

"We really stress defense. Offense comes and goes but defense can be a constant," Parr said. "I think our defensive play has really improved over the course of the season."

Whichever team puts together the last big run also might be pivotal in the outcome. The Green Wave trailed by two points in the first game before outscoring Lakewood 26-9 during the third quarter to take a 45-30 advantage.

"We've played a lot of teams even for three quarters but we've usually had one big spurt and that's been the difference," Meister said.

Kevin Cox led the Green Wave with a season-high 16 points in the first game. Matt Dawson was averaging 15.5 and Andy Vernau was averaging 10.8 entering last Friday, and Chris Leibold was averaging 9.9.

A wildcard might be 6-4 junior Nate Adams, who still was coming back from a knee injury in early December and managed only two points in the win over Lakewood but has been much more effective of late, scoring in double digits in four of five games entering last Friday.

Guard Bryan Large paced the Lancers with 14 points in the first game. He was averaging 14.9 points and wing player Adam Parlet was averaging 13 entering last Friday.

"The bottom line is this is probably going to be a different kind of game," Meister said. "Look how long ago that first one was, what, maybe six weeks?

They're a different team now and we're a different team now, and we've both packed away a lot of big wins since then. It's just going to be a great atmosphere."