BOULDER – Lewis-Palmer endured years of tortuous waiting before finally claiming a state title, but the final seconds were by far the most miserable.
After Sierra’s Sherron Wilson released a potential game-winning shot just ahead of the buzzer, the Rangers could do nothing but hope. And the outlook didn’t look good.
“When the ball left his hand I thought it was in,” Lewis-Palmer coach Russ McKinstry said. “It looked good. It was on line and it had good rotation. It just was a fraction short. Because of that we’re state champions.”
As the ball bounced away, it became official – the Rangers had defeated Sierra 44-43 at Coors Events Center to take their first 4A basketball title since eventual NBA-mainstay Pat Garrity lifted the trophy in 1994.
This time, it was Josh Scott – who well could follow Garrity’s career path after he plays at Colorado – hoisting the hardware after Justin Smith’s 3-pointer with 33 seconds remaining put the Rangers (27-1) ahead for good in a game that saw 13 lead changes and seven ties.
“They’re not kidding when they say this is the greatest feeling,” said Scott, who scored a game-high 23 points. “But they’re also not kidding when they say this is the hardest thing you’re going to do athletically.”
Scott dismissed Wilson’s shot almost instantly, saying he has seen his stroke and that wasn’t it. But that may have simply been wishful thinking.
The normally dependable Scott just didn’t have it from the free-throw line on Saturday, making 3-of-9. The final two misses came with 6 seconds remaining and a chance to push the lead to three points.
His own misses were all Scott could think about when Wilson pulled up for the potential winner.
“I was thinking, 'Gosh, if we lose this game and I missed two free throws, then I’m taking it on me and I’m probably going to regret this for the rest of my life,'” Scott said.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way, and the regrets instead rested with a Sierra (26-2) team that narrowly missed its third title in four years.
Stallions center Wesley Gordon – Scott’s future teammate in Boulder – felt helpless in those final seconds of his celebrated career.
Gordon grabbed 12 rebounds, blocked five shots and added nine points. Jalen Little led the way with 12 and Calvin Brown also had nine.
If there was ever a doubt as to Gordon’s value to Sierra, it was eliminated when he went to the bench for final 85 seconds of the first half after committed his second foul. Lewis-Palmer reacted like Sierra had pulled its goalie, seizing the opportunity to attack the basket and closing the half on a 7-0 run to take a 26-19 lead.
With Gordon back on the floor, Sierra opened the second half with a 10-0 run. Gordon didn’t score any of those points, but he blocked a pair of shots and provided his irreplaceable presence.
When the final shot went up, Gordon sensed one last chance to give his teammate a boost. But he knew he couldn’t do it.
“I really wanted to go grab it, but I didn’t know if they’d call offensive interference, so I just let it go,” Gordon said. “It just came up a little bit short.”
Justin Smith was right behind Wilson when the shot went up. Smith, who has arrived at school by 6:30 a.m. nearly every day since his freshman year to put up hundreds of shots, had put himself in position to be the hero.
Now Smith could only wait and see if Wilson had trumped him.
“It felt like the ball was in the ball forever,” the junior said. “When the buzzer finally sounded I was like, is it really over? I can’t believe it.”
The wait was hardest on McKinstry, who had taken his previous three teams to the semifinals only to be sent home on the first day each time – including twice at the hands of Sierra. But the coach, who arrived in Monument just after Garrity left, doesn’t have to wait any longer.
“The circumstances and the plays that were made, that’s probably the craziest game I’ve been involved with in my 25 years of doing this,” McKinstry said. “Just some of the bounces and crazy things that happened. That was pretty memorable.”