COOS BAY -- Oregon Episcopal survived a bruising battle with Cascade Christian, as senior captain John Fitzhenry made a short bank shot with 37 seconds left, to pull out an historic 35-33 win in the OSAA/OnPoint Community Credit Union 3A boys basketball final Saturday at Marshfield High School.
It is the first state basketball championship in school history for the Aardvarks, who had an dramatic turnaround from last year, when they only won five games.
“We made history in such a short time, we were a 5-15 team last year,” Fitzhenry said. “To do this big of a turnaround, It means a lot for me because it means a lot to so many people in the OES community.”
“We were keying on their top guys and he made a great shot to win the state championship, so hats off to him,” Cascade Christian coach Brian Morse said.
Oregon Episcopal coach Edward Kirk had his players buy into a “next play” mentality and led his team to a title in only his second season.
“I’m feeling a lot of joy. I’m very happy for the kids,” Kirk said. “It was a lot of hard work. They are very resilient kids. It means a lot. It’s a great win for the community. I’m very blessed and very thankful.”
Points were tough to come by all night, as both teams played physical, in your face defense. Neither team led by more than six points and both teams made more foul shots than field goals in the game.
Oregon Episcopal (22-7) never trailed in the first half, holding leads of 8-7 after one quarter and 16-14 at halftime, as both teams struggled to get any good looks at the basket. Junior guard Charles Willmott led the Aardvarks with 10 points at the half and his five made field goals was one more than the entire Challenger team.
Junior guard Donminic Lewis and junior forward Matt McPheeters each had five points for Cascade Christian (23-6) and senior Layne Collom added four.
“We played them earlier in the year and lost by eight in a defensive battle. I knew it was going to be a low scoring game,” Kirk said. “We had two kids bleeding in the first few minutes. That’s the kind of game the kids like, a physical game.”
“Both teams were grinding,” Morse said. “It was so physical, it was hard to score. Two evenly matched defensive teams that were just going at it.”
“We take pride in our defense and they play good defense,” Willmott said. “It was just a matter of trying to get a good shot.”
The Challengers finally broke through in the third quarter with an 11-2 run, turning a five-point deficit into a four-point lead. McPheeters had four points, Collom had two driving layups and senior guard Kiegan Schaan hit a three-pointer during the run.
“It was our defense,” Morse said. “We got some steals, some fast breaks and we hit a couple shots. We just couldn’t extend the lead. We had a big dry spell offensively.”
Cascade Christian held the lead through most of the fourth quarter, as neither team made a field goal in the first seven minutes of the final stanza. Oregon Episcopal finally broke through to get the lead back 32-31 as Willmott sank four straight free throws, the last two with just over one minute remaining.
After a timeout, the Challengers ran a sweet play and got a backdoor layup from Lewis off a nice feed from Schaan to pull back in front 33-32 with 55 seconds to play.
That set the stage for Fitzhenry, who got free in the lane and had just enough room to bank in a short jumper with 37 seconds remaining, giving Oregon Episcopal a 34-33 lead. It was his only basket of the game.
“It felt pretty good. I was focused on the next play, just getting a stop on defense,” Fitzhenry said. “In the end, you can focus on the big moments and those might define the game, but you are not going to win if you don’t focus on the next play. That is just what I did.”
“He’s such a very mature kid, a great leader,” Kirk said. “He is a three-time high school All-American in Lacrosse and he won state titles as a freshman and sophomore, so he knows the feeling in a different sport.”
“He’s a great leader,” Willmott added. “I’m happy for him to hit that shot.”
The Challengers had a chance to win it, but couldn’t find an opening in the Aardvarks defense and after a blocked shot, a mad scramble for the ball ended with Cascade Christian committing an intentional foul with 0.5 seconds remaining.
Junior forward Jakob Wilkins made one of two free throws and OES was able to get the ball inbounds to end the game.
“We got fortunate on a couple bounces there and made a great defensive play at the end,” Kirk said. “The kids worked their butt off and they are state champions.”
“This is insane,” Willmott said. “This is everything we talked about working for, but I never realized it would come true until the buzzer sounded.”
Willmott led all scorers with 19 points and added five rebounds. Senior guard Luca Pejovic-Nezhat added six points and seven rebounds. Wilkins finished with three points and seven rebounds.
McPheeters led the Challengers with 10 points and two steals. Lewis added nine points and five rebounds. Collom finished with eight points, four rebounds and two steals.
Cascade Christian made quite a run, considering this same group struggled through last season to an 8-17 record.
“It’s been an amazing journey. I have nothing but respect for these players and how hard they work,” Morse said. “They never get outworked by somebody. They give it their all on the court. That is the one thing that a coach can ask of his players and they do it for me every night. I’m so proud of them.”
Photos of state championship events are available online from Northwest Sports Photography at 4nsp.com