With 22 seconds to play in the championship game of the Southeast Conference tournament, the Crimson Bears were down by three points as sophomore guard Tony Yadao squared up for what would be the game-tying 3-pointer, giving new life to the surging Juneau-Douglas boys' basketball team.
About 18 seconds later, sophomore point guard Lance Ibesate stole the ball from the conference's leading scorer, Ketchikan's Jeff Whicker, and raced the length of the court for the game-winning lay-up. The Crimson Bears were headed to the state tournament for the second consecutive year.
Ibesate and Yadao are the future of Bears basketball, but it's the seniors that are the bedrock of all good programs. And it's this year's seniors who have laid the foundation over four years, culminating in one last shot at state glory for the soon-to-be graduates.
"No one really expected us to make it, but we did and everyone is really excited. I thought we had a definite chance as we all progressed," said senior forward Paul Tupou. "Ketchikan was obviously a really tough opponent and we struggled a lot against them all year, but I really had a feeling that we were going to make it. We pulled it together and I'm really proud of us for doing that."
For the outgoing seniors, this means they have one last chance to go out on top.
"I'm just glad I get to play some more in my last year," said Eric Sele, another senior forward. "I didn't want it to end in a loss in regions, so I'm excited to go up (to Anchorage) and hopefully do well.
"We're just going to play hard and do what we do."
The current edition of the Crimson Bears is much different than last year's version, which has been well-documented following the departure of key players to Thunder Mountain High School. Senior guard Alex DeRocher, who hit the game-winner to beat the Kings in their first Southeast Conference Tournament matchup, said both the upperclassmen and underclassmen have stepped into roles that were undefined at the beginning of the season.
"Last year, different people had different roles and we had a couple of go-to guys, but we have more of a team this year, which is why we won the Southeast," he said. "A couple of the guys had experience, but a lot of people didn't even play because we were so old last year."
DeRocher said last year's frontcourt was comprised mainly of seniors, so Tupou and Sele have made the best out of their opportunities this season with the extra playing time. He also said senior point guard Victor Wilson's return to the team after a two-year hiatus has been crucial.
"Victor has done a phenomenal job at point guard. He didn't even play last year and he just stepped in and starting dishing the ball to everybody," DeRocher said. "Our bigs have also really stepped up because most of the playing time was given to the senior bigs last year, so they really didn't get that much experience.
"Just playing with these senior guys is kind of weird because it's our first year actually playing together as a full unit, and our last year at the same time," he continued. "But we've meshed pretty well throughout the season. Going into the Southeast tournament we started to click really well, so that's probably why we won."
Wilson said he is glad he decided to return to basketball, especially with the impending trip to Anchorage.
"Coming into the season I didn't know what to expect for myself or for the team, so making it to state is awesome. We're not ready to stop playing," he said. "It was definitely worth coming back. It's been a lot of fun. I've played with a lot of these guys since elementary school, so (jelling) was pretty easy because we've all been friends.
"I love these guys," he continued. "There's no fighting and we don't do anything to make each other mad - maybe sometimes, but for the most part it's all good. It's awesome for team chemistry."
If you ask the players, it's the team chemistry that got them through the regional tournament.
"We really pulled together as a team when we needed to; they didn't," said Tupou of archrival Ketchikan. "They were really good, but we were just that much better.
"(The seniors) are all pretty close friends, and that helps because at any given time there's at least one or two seniors on the floor to take a leadership position if they need to."
For senior guard Terrence Wheat, the first year on the team has had a bittersweet ending. Wheat suffered a high-ankle sprain on senior night at Juneau-Douglas High School, and his availability for the state tournament is uncertain.
But he's excited for the experience.
"It's amazing that we get to go to state because I've never been to state for anything in my whole career here," he said. "I've known these guys from playing football, so this is really cool. It's been a good first year. I've made a lot of new friends.
"But I'm hoping I'll be able to play," he continued. "I've been trying to practice and do what I can."
Bears coach Steve Potter said though Wheat is injured, he's been a great contributor to the team, along with the other seniors.
"Terrence has been a tenacious practice player all year, and when he's gotten a chance to play he's been just as tenacious in the games," he said. "I also think Eric and Paul have done a great job. Sele had played a lot when he was younger, but as a junior he pretty much didn't. This year, I think he's the only guy that has started every game for us, and Paul (Tupou) has come from nowhere to be a valuable contributor to the team."
With key backcourt players leaving last year's squad, Potter also mentioned how valuable his senior guards have been.
"Alex is our leading scorer and Victor's given us some strength and leadership at (point guard)," he said. "He's a natural leader - it probably would have been nice if he would have played a couple more years of basketball, but we're happy with what we got out of him this year."
With one final chance to bring home the state title, the Bears are playing their best basketball at the right time. And if the seniors have it their way, they'll still be playing late into next week.
Matthew Tynan can be reached at email@example.com
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