Last-second, long-range shots help ICC to district tournament title in thriller
Despite the fact that they will play hundreds of basketball games over the course of their high school careers, few players actually get the chance to say they hit the game-winning shot that lifted their team to a championship win as the buzzer went off.
Fewer still is the number of players who can say they hit two title-clinching shots that beat the final horn. In the same game.
However, you can add Izard County Consolidated's Joey Stefka to that rare roll call of double buzzer-beating heroes, as he hit two beyond-clutch shots that gave ICC the 2AA-North District Tournament title with a heart-stopping 71-69 overtime win over the Salem Greyhounds Feb. 17 at Harold Ray Jeffery Gymnasium in Calico Rock.
With the Cougars trailing 69-67 deep in the fourth, Stefka (15 points) drilled a 17-footer from the left baseline at the buzzer that knotted the game at 69-all, sending the contest to overtime.
The Cougars (23-12) got the ball to start the extra frame and worked the ball around the perimeter, playing keep away from Salem (14-11).
Content to hold the ball for the entire four-minute overtime period, ICC took the only shot of the extra frame, a fallaway 12-footer from the right elbow by Stefka that found its way to the bottom of the net as the horn sounded, giving the Cougars an incredible storybook ending.
The overtime clash with ICC was Salem's second extra-frame affair in as many days.
The night before, the Hounds had come from 10 points down in the fourth period to knock off the top-seeded Sloan-Hendrix Greyhounds in overtime.
Big-time players step up and deliver in the most pressure-packed of situations, and Stekfa's two huge shots were a fitting climax to a battle between two of the area's deadliest gunslingers, ICC's James Morgan and Salem's Chad Willett.
Regardless of who was Wyatt Earp and who was Doc Holliday, Morgan and Willett put on quite a show on the biggest stage to this point of the season.
Morgan racked up four triples on his way to a team-high 27 points for ICC, while Willett canned six remarkable 3-balls, on his way to a game-high 28-point performance for the Hounds.
As a matter of fact, the first two minutes of the game made the gunfight at the OK Corral look like a walk in the park by comparison.
The first six shots of the night were all 3-pointers, as the tone and tempo was set early.
Kyle McCandlis (six points) drilled the first trey, and Morgan added another to give the Cougars a 6-0 lead.
Willett jacked Salem's first long ball of the night and then gave way as Morgan canned his second trifecta for ICC. Willett responded with another 3-ball, before McCandlis rang up his second 3-pointer, giving the Cougars a 12-6 lead less than two minutes into the game.
For the night, the two hot-shooting squads combined for 17 shots beyond the arc, 10 for the Cougars, seven for the Hounds.
The Cougars held the lead for most of the first period, but two more triples from Willett, the last one at the 25-second mark, pushed Salem in front 22-20 after the first period.
The lead swapped sides six times in a highly-competitive second period that, in addition to more long-range bombing, featured some good play on the low blocks from ICC's Curtis Clark and Salem's Jeff Nelson.
Clark (eight points) got loose in the paint for back-to-back hoops that gave ICC a 27-24 lead midway into the frame.
Nelson (12 points) responded with two straight hoops in the paint later in the stanza that staked the advantage back to the Hounds at 30-29.
But it was the long ball that once again grabbed the headlines right before the half.
Stefka drained a 3 at the 2:38 mark to push ICC on top for the moment, 32-30, before Derek Estes (eight points) hit a baseline jumper and Willett jacked his fifth trey of the first half, switching the lead back to Salem, 35-32.
This Greyhound lead was brief, with Adam Montgomery (six points) recording a triple at the 46-second mark that fittingly deadlocked the game at 35-all at halftime.
This dizzying back-and-forth pace seemed to gather steam as the third period got under way, with the lead swapping hands five times in the first four minutes of the frame.
The Cougars grabbed the lead for the remainder of the third on four unanswered points by Scott Small (eight points).
Nelson had a productive third period for the Hounds with eight points in the frame, as Salem battled to stay close to ICC.
Lance Powell (17 points) also stepped up his game for Salem in the third, as he hit the Hounds' last five points of the frame on a 3-pointer with 12 ticks left on the clock and a layup at the buzzer that pulled his team within one, 57-56, after three.
Not surprisingly, the 3-pointer was back center stage late in the fourth period.
After Salem had pushed back on top 64-61 at the 3:45 mark of the fourth, Stefka locked things at 64-all with a triple.
Morgan broke the tie with a trey at the 1:36 mark, giving the Cougs a 67-64 advantage.
Not to be outdone, Willett then jacked his last trefecta of the game at the 1:21 mark, squaring the contest at 67-all.
Despite all the long-distance drilling that went on during the game, it looked as though the outcome might be decided from a mere 15 feet away from the hoop, at the charity stripe.
Powell was fouled heading to the rack with four ticks left on the clock, and with ice water in his veins, stepped to the line and dropped in two huge free throws to give Salem the lead at 69-67.
With only four team fouls at that point, the Hounds could afford to slow up ICC in the last four seconds of the game by fouling without sending the Cougars to the charity stripe.
Salem did just that, using two fouls to take three seconds off the clock, leaving ICC a shade over one second to get off the final shot of the fourth.
As it turned out, it was Stefka's turn to shine, and he did just that, taking the inbounds pass and draining a jumper at the end of regulation to give ICC an opportunity to win in overtime. Stefka made sure this chance was not wasted, as he hit another incredible shot to give his side, which was runners-up in the regular season to Sloan-Hendrix, the district title.
Jonathan Quillman finished with two points for ICC.
Dusty York and Wes James logged two points apiece for Salem.