Beating the Metamora boys basketball team is a tall order. The Redbirds are tall and talented.

But Pekin almost pulled off an upset Friday night in Hawkins Gym. After leading most of the time in the first three quarters, the Dragons fell 58-52 in a Mid-Illini Conference game.

Free throws were a huge reason for Metamora’s victory. The Redbirds (8-3, 4-1) were 16-for-18 at the foul line in the fourth quarter, scoring 16 of their 24 points there, and finished 19-for-23.

Payton Havens is Metamora’s shortest player at 5-foot-9, but he was big at the free throw line against Pekin (4-7, 3-2). The senior guard was 8-for-8 in the fourth quarter and 10-for-10 in the game en route to a 12-point night.

Metamora’s Danny Grieves was a relieved coach after the game.

“I’m pleased as punch to get out of here with a win,” he said. “(Hawkins Gym) is a tough place to play, and we just don’t match up well with Pekin’s grind-it-out style. I’ve brought some good teams in here and gotten beat.

“Our free throw shooting has been up and down this season. Tonight, we were good. If you can shoot free throws well on the road, you’ve got a good chance to win. I also liked how we didn’t panic tonight even though we were behind most of the time.”

Pekin coach Jeff Walraven was happy with his team’s performance, but he pointed to a couple of lulls that made a difference in the game’s outcome.

The Dragons were only 4-for-8 at the free throw line in the third quarter, missing a chance to build more than a 35-34 lead going into the fourth quarter. 

“Free throws are the bane of our existence sometimes,” Walraven said. 

And the basket suddenly had a lid on it for the Dragons late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter.

After taking its biggest lead of the night (35-30) on a reverse layup by Patrick Torrey with 1:40 left in the third quarter, Pekin found itself down 44-39 with 3:49 to go in the game after a pair of triples -- one from each corner -- by Metamora’s 6-5 sharpshooter Gabe Mason, who scored a team-high 15 points.

Max Jones’ 3-pointer with 2:35 left erased Metamora’s lead and tied the game at 46-46, but the Redbirds went back in front and stayed there by scoring their final 12 points at the free throw line.

“We did what we needed to do for 85 to 90 percent of the game,” Walraven said. “We need to find a way to get to 100 percent to win a game like this. Metamora did a good job executing its offense in the fourth quarter and got itself to the free throw line.”

Torrey led Pekin with 15 points, Jones had 10, and Tyler Durr and Brady Grashoff each had nine.

Mason’s 15 points included four triples. Collin Dietz (6-5) had 13 points and nine rebounds and Joe Nelen (6-6) had nine points for Metamora.

GAME NOTES: Pekin’s Justin Taphorn picked up two fouls in the first three minutes of the game and was in foul trouble the rest of the night. The 6-foot-4 junior scored three points in limited playing time. ... Pekin led 13-11 after the first quarter, 23-21 at halftime and 35-34 after three quarters. ... After going 6-for-9 from the floor in the first quarter, Pekin finished 18-for-43 for 42 percent. The Dragons were 13-for-20 on free throws. Metamora was 17-for-41 from the field for 41 percent. ... Metamora star Thomas Hall was dressed for the game and went through warm-ups, but he didn’t play. The 6-9 Air Force commit is recovering from a knee injury he suffered during the Redbirds’ football playoff game this fall. .. Metamora beat Pekin in the sophomore game 60-55.

Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.