West Branch junior Thomas Gould was just hoping to draw a foul when he threw the ball up after feeling contact in the closing seconds on Thursday. When no whistle came as he released the off-balance shot, it looked like overtime would decide the conference champion.
Instead, his heave found the net and West Branch (17-1, 11-1) celebrated a 50-48 win at Mid-Prairie (13-7, 9-2) and back-to-back RVC South titles.
Gould said that his plan on the final possession was to get the ball to Jeff Bowie for the last shot.
“I was going to pass it, and I felt (a defender) grab my arm so I just threw it up to try to get some free throws at the end of the game, and it ended up going in,” Gould said. “I didn't even see the basket.”
Mid-Prairie trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half, but came back to take a 48-45 lead with 2:30 left on two scores in the post from Aidan Rath.
West Branch senior Gavin Hierseman tied the game with a 3-pointer from the corner about a minute later.
Mid-Prairie had just eight turnovers in the game, but a costly one gave West Branch the ball with 10 seconds left.
“If you would have told me that's the last second shot we give up… I say, give it up all day long,” Mid-Prairie coach Daren Lambert said.
“We didn't want to give up anything at the rim or a wide-open look. And a fadeaway 18-footer… if that's the one you’ve got to live with, then that's the one you’ve got to live with.”
While West Branch went up 25-9 in the first half, the largest lead for either team in the second half was six.
“Tonight, we were going to go in and we were going to be aggressive, we weren't going to back down,” Lambert said. Their record wasn’t going to scare us, and the accolades that they have and the talent that they have… We think we're pretty talented ourselves. “
“Give credit to our guys, we responded and the first thing out of my mouth in the locker room was, ‘I'm extremely proud to call myself their coach’ and just extremely proud of how we responded throughout the game.”
Rath kept Mid-Prairie in the game with his six offensive rebounds. He scored 10 points in the second half and finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. His final points capped an 11-3 fourth-quarter run, giving Mid-Prairie its first lead since the score was 3-2.
“Sometimes the best pass is a missed shot, especially when you’ve got Aidan in there,” Lambert said. “West Branch is kind of a game that he likes to step up in. And I think it's because he's seen these guys probably since he was 10 or 12 at various tournaments and middle school.
“He accepts the challenges and wants to be the one on top and tonight, he's the one that carried us.”
In the first quarter, it was Bowie who carried West Branch with eight points in the paint. But the Golden Hawks adjusted and held him to just two after that.
“We went to a zone and packed it in and said let them let them shoot from the outside,” Lambert said. “Obviously in the first quarter those looks were way too easy. I think we did a pretty good job. The just hit some shots and they got the final one.”
Mid-Prairie’s first 12 points came from the 3-point line, but the Golden Hawks could not hit a shot from inside the arc until Ethan Kos scored on a putback over 12 minutes into the game.
The atmosophere on Thursday was electric - a departure from the ordinary energy of the smaller COVID-era crowds. The buzz grew each time the teams traded 3-point shots.
Will Cavanagh hit a pair of 3-pointers in the first quarter and finished 3-7 from outside for 11 points and six rebounds. Alex Bean was 3-5 from outside and scored all nine of his points in the first half.
The two teams combined for just four total 3-pointers in the first meeting. On Thursday, the Golden Hawks were 7-17 from behind the arc while West Branch was 8-24.
Jack Pennington had five points, four assists and four steals. His 3-pointer tied the game at 42-42 in the fourth quarter.
Last season’s meeting in Wellman also ended with West Branch hitting a tough shot at the buzzer. That one came after the Bears rallied to force overtime. West Branch coach and Mid-Prairie alum Jason Kern is now 5-1 against the Hawks, and 3-0 on his former home court.
“It's very stressful for me leading up to this game,” Kern said. I don’t like coming back here and coaching.
“This is the place that built me, ground up, growing up, so it's special to come here and coach. You know, a lot of good memories here as a player. But it's a lot different on the bench when you can't really have control out on the floor.”
West Branch had four players in double figures led by Hierseman, who was 3-4 from the 3-point line on the way to 13.