WEST LIBERTY - With their backs firmly pressed against the wall at West Liberty Tuesday, Feb. 23, the eighth-ranked Springville boys basketball team needed something to happen, and quickly, or the Orioles’ 2020-21 dream season was going to come to a close against New London in the class 1A district championship game.
Down by 12 points midway through the fourth quarter, the Springville boys reacted like champions do, and just about pulled off one of the most amazing comebacks in school history.
“We have the most competitive and resilient group of players I have ever coached,” said Oriole boys basketball coach Nick Merritt, as his team incredibly rallied back from the double-digit fourth quarter deficit only to have their hearts broken in overtime succumbing to a bitter 71-68 season-ending defeat at the hands of the Tigers.
“Rather than fold, we picked up our intensity and got them on their heels and fought our way back.”
Springville trailed 56-44 with just 4:48 remaining in the game before the team went back to their signature press and forced New London into numerous turnovers.
Alex Koppes started the run scoring a basket at the 4:12 mark before Tommy Hagensick added another, and all of a sudden, the Orioles were down eight (56-48) with 3:51 to play.
After another Tigers turnover, Luke Menster worked his way to the free throw line and calmly swished a pair to make it a two-possession game (56-50) with 3:26 remaining.
The run continued just 16-seconds later as Hagensick scored a basket and was fouled, then after adding the free throw, momentum was firmly on Springville’s side trailing just 56-53 with 3:10 to play.
“It was the press that changed everything,” said Koppes, who hit several enormous shots down the stretch keying the Orioles’ incredible comeback.
“New London started to get foul happy and we drew some charges and got some turnovers, and all of a sudden a game that looked like we were out of, we were right there with a chance to win.”
New London snapped the 9-0 Springville run scoring a basket with 2:43 remaining to stretch their lead back to five points (58-53) before the Orioles responded again as Rhenden Wagaman tallied a free throw then after Koppes grabbed the offensive rebound, found Menster for a field goal. With 1:46 to play Springville was down by a mere two points at 58-56.
The Tigers made a trip to the free throw line with 1:16 to play and missed both attempts before Koppes stepped to the line on the other end of the floor 22-seconds later, and drilled both to tie the score (58-58) with still 54-seconds remaining on the fourth quarter clock.
New London again answered as Blaise Porter got into the lane and hit a jumper giving the Tigers a 60-58 advantage with 41-seconds to play.
It wouldn’t last.
Wagaman got loose and scored with 20-seconds left to once again tie it, and after a Koppes steal two seconds later, the Orioles had the ball for the last shot and the win.
“After the bucket that tied the game, we stole the ensuing inbounds pass,” Merritt said. “After a timeout to set up the final play, we came out hoping to get a clean last shot.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t execute our last play as we had wanted and were forced to take a contested jumper that we didn’t make and went into overtime tied (60-60).”
The four-minute overtime saw the Tigers score first before Wagaman answered with a dunk at the 2:40 mark to knot the score at 62-62.
Koppes gave Springville their first lead since early in the game when he connected for a huge 3-pointer with 2:07 remaining but it was quickly answered by New London, who tied the score at 65-65 with 1:47 left.
Koppes calmy came back down the floor and immediately swished another long trey with 1:29 to play, and the Orioles were once again on top, 68-65.
“In overtime we did a nice job of getting out and playing well and led throughout the overtime,” Merritt said. “To New London’s credit, it seemed that every time we hit a big shot, they would come down and match it.”
In fact, it was the Tigers who would have the game’s final run as Porter hit a shot to pull New London to within a point at 68-67 with 1:09 to play then added two free throws with 16-seconds left that proved to be the daggers.
“A foul on an in-bounds play by us put one of their players at the line where he hit both free throws,” Merritt said. “After a timeout with just under seven seconds left, we were unable to corral the in-bounds pass that was stolen by New London and they sealed it with a lay-up.”
Porter grabbed the errant Oriole in-bounds pass and raced to the rim scoring just before the buzzer sounded.
“The biggest issues that really impacted us was free throw shooting, poor shooting in the first half and some untimely and uncharacteristic mistakes at inopportune times,” said Merritt, as his team was 11-of-24 at the line in the contest and overall shot 38-percent from the field while New London connected at a 54-percent clip.
“However, on the flip side we definitely showed a lot of toughness when things weren’t going well and made some key plays at times when it seemed the game was getting away.”
The Orioles got off to a solid start as Koppes connected on a 2-point field goal before Wagaman added a trey to put Springville up 5-3 a little more than a minute into the game.
Unfortunately, it would be the last lead the Orioles would have in regulation play.
New London led 18-14 after one quarter, 28-25 at the half and 43-38 through three frames before Springville would work their way back into the contest.
“This loss was extremely tough to take,” said Koppes, who scored a team-high 26 points in his final game as an Oriole. “Not just because of how close we came, but because we had such high expectations after making it to state last year. We wanted to get back there again, not just for us, but for our school and entire community. We felt we had the team to get back there again, and to not get that accomplished, well, it hurts.
Koppes added 10 rebounds, three assists and three steals to his impressive stat-line while Wagaman tallied 18 points and eight boards. Menster chipped in with 11 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“Obviously, it’s tough to lose and as a group of highly competitive athletes, any loss does not sit well with our guys,” Merritt said. “We went through the season with high expectations and had lofty goals for ourselves and coming up short is tough to take.
“With that said, the harder part of the loss is the finality that is realized. It’s the finality of looking around the locker room, at your teammates and coaches and knowing that life as you know it as a person and a basketball player won’t ever be the same. While we still return some players from this team, the core group of guys have been playing together extensively since they were young elementary players. The amount of time they have spent together is countless, and they have built lifelong connections and friendships with each other that they’ll always remember.”
Springville closes one of the greatest boys’ campaigns in school history with as 22-3 overall record.