Down by two points with a mere 20 seconds left in the Class 2A State Championship game at Summit Arena in Hot Springs March 13, the Melbourne Bearkatz just needed to get to the bucket one final time for a chance to pull even with Conway St. Joseph.
But they just couldn't.
Conway St. Joseph's Zach Hambuchen slapped the ball loose from Melbourne, just 12 feet form the Bearkatz' hoop, and the Bulldogs won their first boys' state title game in more than 20 years with a tight 44-40 victory over the Katz.
Hambuchen's huge play on defense atoned for a major blunder on offense just seconds earlier.
The Bulldogs (34-4) held a 42-40 lead with 25 seconds left and had possession of the ball.
Instead of spreading the floor and forcing Melbourne to foul, Hambuchen took an ill-advised shot, even though it was from point-blank range. He missed the shot and Melbourne grabbed the rebound and headed down court, time ticking off the clock.
The Katz (37-5) drove the ball into the paint, but Hambuchen came from behind and knocked the ball free, giving St. Joseph possession.
John Kordsmeier was fouled and hit two free throws with six seconds left to set the final score at 44-40, Conway St. Joseph. Kordsmeier was named tournament MVP.
Conway St. Joseph Head Coach Brent Bruich said after the game that the last seconds didn't play out just as he had planned, although the end results speak for themselves.
"We had a two-point lead and the ball and we were trying to spread out a little. They were in a 1-3-1, but we kind of bunched up more than we wanted," he said. "He (Hambuchen) had an open lane and I guess he kind of got (caught up) in the moment there. If he makes the shot, we're up four, but he didn't. But, we came down and got a big stop. Zach came back and made a big play on the other end. I guess he knew he was going to get the wrath of his coach there if he didn't make that play."
While Melbourne did get the deep penetration on the last play of the game that it wanted, it was just not quite deep enough.
"I just wanted us to get to the rim one last time, but it just didn't work out that way," said Melbourne Head Coach Watson.
Despite the outcome, Melbourne, playing in its first boys' championship game in school history, still has plenty to be proud of for its body of work this season.
"I couldn't be any more happy for my team in a loss. They battled, they did everything I asked them to do -- it just didn't turn out like we wanted it to," said Watson. "We had a chance to win at the very end, but it just didn't turn out that way. I told them in the dressing room -- I was proud of them and proud to be the coach at Melbourne and be in the state championship game with them. I told them how many people would love to be in this position, to play in the state finals."
And what a state finals it was, with both teams scrapping tooth and nail for the duration of the game.
The Bearkatz led 32-31 with 42 seconds left in the third period when Josh Hambuchen hit a layup near the buzzer that pushed St. Joseph in front 33-32 after three.
The Bulldogs padded their margin on two straight hoops to open the fourth period, giving St. Joseph a 37-32 lead with 4:42 left in the game.
Spencer Caraway, last season's Class 1A MVP when he helped the Izard County Cougars to a state championship, stopped the Bulldogs' run with a huge baseline bucket-plus-one that edged the Katz within two, 37-35. Caraway led all scorers with 17 points in the game.
Zach Hambuchen scored the next hoop of the contest, but Chase Massey (nine points) quickly responded with a big-time 3-ball that saw Melbourne narrow the gap to one, 39-38.
Then it was St. Joseph's turn to steal the momentum.
Marcus Kordsmeier hit a trey with 2:06 left to push the Bulldogs back in front by four, 42-38.
The Bearkatz, with only two team fouls at the 1:37 mark, fouled the Bulldogs four times to try and get St. Joseph into the bonus. But the Bulldogs helped out the Katz' cause with a turnover at the 1:03 mark. Spencer Caraway cashed in this turnover for two points on a layup that came with 52 ticks remaining.
But that was as close as Melbourne could get, as Zach Hambuchen made a big defensive play to seal the win for Conway St. Joseph.
"I tell these guys all the time -- big players make big plays in big games," said Bruich. "And we made some tonight."
Dalton Grigg (four points) opened the game with a pair of charity tosses for the Katz and the game was knotted at 7-all with 5:12 left in the first period, thanks to a triple from Kody Caraway, when the Bulldogs ended the frame on a roll.
Spencer Caraway was whistled for his second foul with 4:50 left in the first and St. Joseph went on an 11-2 run to take an 18-9 lead to the start of the second period.
This led to some tweaking to the Melbourne scheme early in the second.
"We had to shore up our defense a little. We were getting out of position," Watson said. "And Spencer picked up two quick ones (fouls) and that forced us to chance up our zone a little bit, so we could protect him. And on offense, we wanted more movement and to get the ball into the spots we wanted to -- just keep attacking the rim."
And attack the rim was just what the Katz did.
Lee Lewis (seven points) swiped the ball and drove in for a layup to start the second, and after a bucket and freebie from John Kordsmeier, Massey and Spencer Caraway combined for the next six points to edge Melbourne within four.
Lewis narrowed the gap to two with his first 3-ball in the game, but Marcus Kordsmeier hit one of his own to send the teams to intermission with Conway St. Joseph in front 25-20.
It was obvious that the Bearkatz meant business in the third and they shot in front 28-26, due in part to a period-opening 8-1 run that knocked the Bulldogs back on their heels.
"We try to win the first four minutes of each half, but they (Melbourne) got the second half with that start they had there," Bruich said.
But St. Joseph managed to restore order and take a 33-32 lead into the final frame, and then, with the outcome still up for grabs, the Bulldogs got the big stop they needed to edge past Melbourne 44-40.
Melbourne won the 2-2A regular season championship with a perfect mark before going on to claim titles in the district and regional tournaments this year.