Panthers claw their way to clinch 1A playoff spot
This was their moment. For the Pinnacle High boys basketball team, it's one they won't soon forget.
On senior night, a record size crowd filled up the stands and every available open space at the Pinnacle High Gymnasium to watch two teams vying for second place in Region 19.
And the Panthers wanted to make sure everyone went home happy.
In a game that saw plenty of momentum shifts in the final minutes, it was the Panthers overcoming an 11 point second half deficit on their way to a 61-50 win over Green River High School on Tuesday night.
Many Panther players were still in shock with the end result as friends, family members and fellow classmates stormed the court after the final buzzer.
"It just kind of happened," said Pinnacle senior Jake Hardy of the comeback. "We started getting things going in the second half. It was our last game at home and we didn't want to go out with a loss on senior night."
For the Panthers, a win against Green River didn't seem like a possibility with their play in the first half.
Pinnacle struggled offensively in the first half, especially from beyond the arc, as shots were hitting the front of the rim or bounced in and out before Green River regained possession.
"We were stagnant in the first half on offense," said PHS head coach Andrew Olson.
Green River took advantage as they 26-19 lead into the half thanks to Chance Pfander's four 3-pointers.
The Pirates extended the lead to 11 early in the third quarter. Facing a growing deficit and struggling to get things going on offense, the Panthers began to break down the Green River defense by driving to the basket.
Hardy and fellow senior Taje Richardson successfully broke down the Green River defense on multiple possessions, converting close shot opportunities to the basket. A Richardson layup early in the fourth quarter tied the game at 37-37, the closest Pinnacle had been since the first quarter.
Hardy added another layup moments later and found an open Javanni Alzayyat down low for a basket that capped a 7-0 run giving Pinnacle their largest lead of the game 41-37.
"As soon as my defender saw Jake drive the lane, I knew Jake could get me the ball for a basket and it worked," said Alzayyat, who finished with 11 points. "We knew we had to do something to get the momentum back and everybody was doing their job in the second half."
After getting the lead, Pinnacle never trailed again. The Pirates were able to tie the game at 41-41 with 5:09 left but Richardson answered back with a huge 3-pointer, one of only two shots Pinnacle made from beyond the arc all game long.
Both teams traded baskets, but Hardy began to take over the game as he hit back to back shots in the paint to extend the Panther lead to 52-46 with two minutes left. He added four free throws in the final minute to push the Panther lead to 57-48.
Rudman added two more free throws for the Panthers and when Richardson was fouled with 16 seconds left, the Panthers knew the game was in their control. Before heading to the line Richardson began playing to the crowd asking them to get louder as the Panther bench erupted with high fives and hugs all around.
Richardson connected on both free throws before Olson removed all of his seniors from the game drawing a loud ovation from the home crowd.
"We were all just waiting for the buzzer to go off," Richardson said.
As the seconds ticked off and the final buzzer sounded it was a sense of relief for a team that put in plenty of hard work in the offseason for a shot at getting to the playoffs.
"We just started attacking the basket in the second half as our aggression picked up," said Olson. "I told our kids to go out there and give the fans a show. We didn't do that in the first half, but we came back and did just that in the second half."
Hardy led the team with 23 points. Richardson added 19 points and Rudman finished with six points.
While the team celebrated on the court taking photos with friends and family, there was still some unfinished business. Panther players mentioned they wanted to celebrate with their head coach on a special night. After Olson returned from the locker room, he stood next to his players and was told to look up towards the ceiling. As he looked up, players doused him with a bucket of ice cold water leaving their head coach shivering but with a wide smile.
"We had been planning it for awhile," said Richardson. "He didn't know it was coming."
Despite having a cold, Olson said the water shower on the court was well worth it.
"I had no idea it was going to happen but it was well worth it," he said. "This was the biggest win in the history of the program and I'm just happy for our team and our seniors getting a chance to go to state."
With second place in Region 19 secure thanks to the win, the Panthers (14-6, 6-3 Region 19) still have one more region game at Whitehorse on Feb. 21 before heading off to Richfield for the 1A State Tournament starting on Wednesday, Feb. 27.
"This game shows we can win those grind it out kind of games heading into the tournament," Olson said noting the team will be focusing on fixing a few areas on both offense and defense before their final game against Whitehorse.