Monday’s 3A Greater St. Helens League boys basketball tiebreaker at Union High School was wild.
And it was wild before the first whistle blew.
A three-team tiebreaker is something the league has never had before in basketball. Football yes. Volleyball yes. But never basketball.
So Monday’s event was special, but even more for three programs that had not had much to celebrate recently.
Evergreen was 7-14, having lost seven of its last nine. Heritage was 7-12, having lost 13 of its last 14. And Prairie was 5-15, having lost eight of its last nine.
“This is just great to see all these students here with something to be excited about,” Heritage principal Derek Garrison said.
And there was a lot of excitement on the court. The teams would play two two-quarter contests to see which one would advance to the bi-district tournament as the 3A GSHL No. 3 team.
Evergreen and Heritage started first. After a close first quarter, the Plainsmen pulled away for a 30-24 win with Arthur Ban contributing 14 points for Evergreen.
After Heritage was eliminated, many of Heritage’s student section joined ranks with Prairie’s student section. Heritage is closer to Prairie (2.7 miles) than it is to Evergreen (3.7 miles), oddly enough.
The Evergreen-Prairie contest was a back-and-forth affair that went right down to the final second — and beyond.
Prairie led by one and was looking to seal the win from the free-throw line with two seconds to go.
But the Falcons missed the front end of a 1-and-1. Evergreen rebounded and was granted a timeout with one second left.
Evergreen’s Quincy Caston then made a length-of-the-floor inbounds pass to Ban in the key. Ban caught the pass, turned and shot in one motion. The shot missed, but Prairie was called for a foul with no time left.
Unfortunately for the Plainsmen, both resulting free throws were no good. Prairie celebrated a 30-29 win, sending the Falcons into the bi-district playoffs.
“I think for these guys, with the way we’ve battled through a lot of adversity during the season and some up and downs, they have just continued to persevere and push through,” Prairie coach Jimmy Tuominen said. “And I’m just really excited for them to get the opportunity to play on Wednesday night, and hopefully maybe play Saturday.”
And the players noticed the high-spirited environment from the start.
“I think everyone was just hyped,” Prairie senior Tyson Davis said. “I mean, the student section was into it. Everyone was into it. Everyone was hyped every time you made a play.”
Things have not gone Prairie’s way since the calendar turned to 2023. The Falcons lost eight games in a row, including a 77-76 overtime game to Heritage on Jan. 30.
But two days later, needing a win to salvage their season, the Falcons beat Evergreen 65-57 to force Monday’s tiebreaker.
“Last week, when they came to us, we knew it was going to be a dogfight,” senior Bryson Jones said. “It was our senior night, so the three of us (Jones, Davis and Prairie’s third senior Bailey Kousonsavath) we had to take up the roles that we were supposed to be playing all year long. I felt like we really starting clicking when we got that win.”
Tuominen said that through the team’s eight-game skid, the players worked to improve on different aspects of their game in hopes that it would create the opportunity the Falcons seized upon Monday night.
“You always want to have your seniors have an opportunity to go to the playoffs in their last season,” Tuominen said. “And then for our young kids, it’s an experience that they’ll remember and one they haven’t had yet.”
Now, the Falcons are marching to the playoffs. Prairie will play Bainbridge on Wednesday at Tumwater in a loser-out bi-district game.
“This is really big for us,” Kousonsavath said. “We are getting really tighter as a team. And now we’re ready for the playoffs. We’ve just got to get better and hopefully win our next game.”
That would suit Tuominen just fine, even if does add to his stress level.
“That was a lot of fun,” Tuominen said. “It was a little bit of stress at the end, but it was a lot of fun. It was fun to see the kids compete in an environment like that.”
Tim Martinez is the assistant sports editor/prep coordinator for The Columbian. He can be reached 360-735-4538, email@example.com or follow him on Twitter or Instagram at @360TMart.