Heading into the final eight minutes Tuesday night, McNary and West Salem were knotted at 41, with the likelihood of a Central Valley Conference title at stake.
A West Salem (15-8, 10-1) win would clinch it. A McNary (16-7, 8-3) victory would put the Celtics in control come Friday.
But after a third quarter that saw breakneck back-and-forth action, with six lead changes and four ties, the Titans took control of the fourth quarter, outscoring the Celtics 19-9 in the final frame for a 60-50 win, securing the CVC title.
The energy level of the game, especially that third quarter, matched that of the packed and hyped crowd. Student sections from both schools filled one side of the bleachers, as fans filled both upper sections as well.
“I think just the ambience and the whole night was just an awesome experience, everything we hoped for,” McNary head coach Ryan Kirch said. “The crowd gave us a lot of energy.”
The two teams had split the previous two meetings this season, each winning on the road. West Salem won the Jan. 19 matchup 74-62.
That was the last time the Celtics had lost prior to Tuesday, winners of six in a row, including a buzzer beater winner from Jabol Balos-Mesey against the Titans on Feb. 7.
But things looked a little different for West Salem this time around, with the return of their 6-feet-7-inch junior Trenton Ferguson.
“Having the big guy back changed how we had to guard some things,” Kirch said. “When he scored it opened up some other things because we had to focus on him. It was just a really good high school basketball game.”
The Titans really seemed to lean on Ferguson in the fourth quarter once they had a lead, using the big man to close out the game. Kirch praised the West Salem guards for not making mistakes, and getting the ball into Ferguson at the right times.
And the Celtics just didn’t have an answer for the glaring mismatch.
“Our number one value for us is our ability to compete,” Kirch said. “I thought our guys did a phenomenal job. You’re giving up height and strength at every position, but that’s not an excuse for our guys, and they just go out and play hard. It was a really good night just for our guys to experience what goes into a game like this.”
McNary seemed to catch the momentum heading into halftime. With the score tied at 26, Osmid Cano hit a layup with 3 seconds left.
Balos-Mesey then stole the inbounds and hit a floater as time expired to put the Celtics up four at the half.
“Our guys were going crazy, it felt great,” Kirch said. “In a big game like this against really good teams, each team is going to make plays, each team is going to make runs, nothing is going to go the way you want to. Smart play by Jabol and we were certainly the aggressors there.”
While Tuesday’s result wasn’t what they hoped, Kirch and the Celtics still have plenty to look
forward to this season. With one game left in the regular season, at South Salem on Friday, and the opening round of the playoffs next Wednesday, March 2,
“We said ‘we’re disappointed, this stinks, but we have a lot of basketball to play.’ We hadn’t lost in a month,” Kirch said. “We’re going to be disappointed and then tomorrow we get up and it’s behind us. We’ll practice tomorrow, get better tomorrow and the same thing Thursday.”
And maybe that disappointment can be a good thing.
Kirch can see the camaraderie and connection between his players that has grown through the season and from previous years.
“Our players love each other and you can see the way they play, how unselfish they play, whether on the bench or on the court,” Kirch said. “From a coaching standpoint, that’s the biggest compliment you can give when you just sort of watch your players play for each other and you sort of step back, and that’s where our team is at. They’re disappointed that we missed a few shots and they made a few more than us, but they love playing together and we get a few more opportunities.”