After 32 hard-fought minutes of regulation and four more of overtime, the Class 5A state boys basketball championship game came down to one shot.
Bishop Gorman was seeking its 10th consecutive state championship and an undefeated season but trailed Liberty in the final seconds. Gorman’s Ryan Abelman stole a Liberty inbound pass and let a shot fly.
According to Liberty coach Kevin Soares and players Joshua Jefferson and Aaron Price, the ball hung in the air at Lawlor Events Center in Reno for an eternity.
“I was genuinely terrified,” Price said. “Not only did we turn the ball over, but we gave it to their best spot-up 3-point shooter. Seeing it fly off his hand, it felt like it froze time.”
The ball ultimately did come down, well off the mark, and Liberty erupted in celebration of a 63-62 victory and its first-ever state boys basketball championship. It wasn’t a perfectly played game by either team, but the intensity and stakes made it an easy choice as the Nevada Preps All-Southern Nevada Game of the Year.
Jefferson felt like he was reliving a nightmare from two years prior, when Gorman stunned Liberty at the buzzer in a regional semifinal game. Gorman went on to win its ninth straight state crown, while Liberty was left one step short of a state tournament berth.
And it seemed as if the Gaels had the Patriots’ number throughout this season, too. The teams had met three times, with each game taking on a different personality, and all ended with Gorman on top.
In the championship game of the Tarkanian Classic at Gorman, Liberty led by as many as 18 before letting it get away in a 97-95 double-overtime loss.
In the regular-season meeting at Liberty, the Gaels took control early and held off a late Liberty run for a relatively comfortable 80-71 decision.
A week before the state championship game, the teams met for the Southern Region crown at Gorman. It was a neck-and-neck game until the Gaels broke it open late in the third quarter and rolled to a 77-61 victory.
“We took some bumps and bruises through those three losses, but we kept sticking together,” Jefferson said. “We had multiple team meetings, and we just had to keep believing in ourselves.”
That belief was tested when Gorman went on an 8-0 run late in the third quarter to take a 45-37 lead into the fourth quarter of the state championship game.
But unlike the week before, when Soares said his team “kind of quit a little bit,” the Patriots were up to the challenge this time. Angelo Kambala made two big 3-pointers, and Jefferson scored the last six points of regulation, including a turnaround jumper with 38 seconds left in regulation to tie it at 56.
In the overtime period, Thomas made a jumper, Kambala added a fast-break layup off a lead pass from Thomas and the Patriots never trailed again. Gorman twice got back to within one point, including on a 3-pointer from John Mobley with less than three seconds left before Abelman stole the inbound pass and fired the final shot.
The Patriots had a goal of keeping Gorman to less than 70 points, one they achieved by playing a deliberate half-court style and limiting turnovers.
“We switched it up and made them play defense a little longer,” Soares said. “Gorman looked like they had some tired legs in the fourth quarter. They had some good looks that they usually make, but they were coming up short.”
Contact Jason Orts at email@example.com. Follow @SportsWithOrts on Twitter.
The Review-Journal will announce its year-end awards throughout the week.
Tuesday: Girls Athlete of the Year
Wednesday: Boys Athlete of the Year
Thursday: Coach of the Year
Friday: Game of the Year
Saturday: Team of the Year