South Wasco County was 41.1 seconds away from earning their first Baker City state berth since the 2008-2009 campaign.
So close, they could taste it.
When the final buzzer rang however, a bitter flavor overcame them.
Cooper Nofziger capped a Country Christian fourth-quarter comeback with a 3-pointer at the buzzer to defeat the South Wasco County Redsides 50-47 in a state sub-round boy’s basketball playoff matchup Friday in Molalla.
“It is a loss. This feeling sucks. We lost the game,” said junior guard David Ocacio. “It hurts a little bit right now, but once we get out of our little slump from losing tonight, we will fight through it to get better. We will definitely use this season as motivation.”
In this showdown, there were seven lead changes and four ties. Country Christian had a deficit as large as 11 points and did not take a lead until the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter when Mitchel Cunningham dropped a pair of free throws to make it 39-37.
After seeing their lead evaporate, the Redsides went on an 8-0 run on a basket by Wyatt Creel, a layup by David Ocacio, a 23-foot long ball from Ocacio and 1 of 2 free throws from Creel over the next 2:46 to take a 45-39 lead with 3:25 left.
Country Christian answered with a layup by Nofziger and a 3-pointer by Jordan Syphard to start a 5-1 rally to bring their team back at 46-44 with 2:22 left.
At the 54.9 second-mark, Ocacio hit 1 of 2 free throws to give the Redsides a 47-44 advantage.
Country Christian center Luke Carter rushed back down and hit a bank shot to inch his team to 47-46 with 41.1 seconds remaining.
On the Redsides’ ensuing possession, an errant inbounds pass towards the mid-court stripe fell into the hands of a Cougar defender with time running out.
Country’s Levi Lewandowski then hit 1 of 2 free throws to even the count at 47-all, but on the back-end miss, SWC hit the ball out of bounds.
The Cougars tried a quick inbounds play, but Carter missed a layup and Creel grabbed the rebound giving the Redsides control with 20.3 on the clock.
In the fourth frame, the normally proficient Redsides struggled from the line, going 3 for 9 – the shoddy shooting came back to bite them at the 16.6 second-mark, and Country Christian was able to get the ball back for one final chance.
On the Cougars’ final time up the floor, SWC coach Jim Hull tried for the steal, but the Cougars got the ball out of harm’s way on their side of the hardwood with 10 seconds left.
There were a four passes made around the perimeter, but Syphard and Lewandowski were blanketed by the SWC defense.
With time running out, the ball wound up in Nofziger’s hands 20-feet from the rim.
The junior looked to pass, but instead, heaved his shot from the left side of the stripe into the net for the game-winner.
“We wanted Number 23 to take the final shot, but I got the pass and I had to shoot it,” said Nofziger, who scored seven points, all in the second half. “I have not hit many 3-pointers this year, so I did not think it was going in. I was on a long dry spell. When I shot it, I thought it was off to the left. I can’t believe this. The ball went in. It is the best feeling ever to hit the shot to get us to Baker.”
Ocacio had 21 points, Nathan Duling tacked on 13 and Loreto Morelli added eight points.
For the game, the Cougars hit 18 of 47 field goals, 4 of 12 from the 3-point line.
Carter led the Cougars with 12 points, Cunningham had nine and Syphard tacked on eight points.
Country Christian dominated the boards with a 32-15 differential.
Sixteen of those boards were on the offensive end.
As far as turnovers were concerned, Country Christian committed six, while the Redsides had 14.
“It is a tough way to lose. For a lot of the game, we felt like we had the upper hand the majority of the time,” said SWC head coach Jim Hull. “My message at the end was the best thing for these young guys is to learn from this. What mistakes, what things happened, you have time to correct those. I feel worse for the seniors, but for those guys coming back, there is a second chance for them.”
In the past three seasons, SWC has improved its win totals from seven to 14 and 21 this season.
The Redsides had a ranking as high as No. 3 in a season where they advanced all the way to the Big Sky championship and won their opening state sub-round contest at home.
One player who enjoyed a thrilling ride in his return was the senior Creel.
Before play started Friday, he sprained his ankle so he was out of commission for the first half and did everything possible to play in the second half.
He finished with four points, five rebounds and two blocks.
“It has been a fun year. It is sad to see it end,” he said. “Everybody did a great job this season. I am really proud of them. They are all great guys. They grew a lot as a team this year. They will make fewer mistakes as they get older and they win a lot of games. I wish them the best.”
The Redsides got their taste of playoff action.
Morelli likes the feeling of success on the hardwood.
He and his teammates want to keep it going.
“We have to improve on what we did,” he said. Anything less is not acceptable. I think this loss puts the fire in us to get better next year. We have to want it and get after it hard so we can go to Baker. That was our goal for this year and we didn’t make it, so next season we are going to really want it bad.”