By BEN JOHNSON
With Matt Craig charging hard to cut off his lane to the basket, Tahlequah’s Jake Vader channeled his inner Magic Johnson. Vader — not known for his point-guard-type, ball-handling skills — dropped off a behind-the-back pass to Dalton Cunningham, who calmly sank a point-blank layup.
All of a sudden, Tahlequah was up by three and seconds away from upsetting Class 5A No. 9 Bishop Kelley. But Cunningham knew there was work left to do.
“I was just thinking ‘get up on defense,’” he said.
The Tigers did just that.
With two seconds left, Craig lofted a 3-point attempt from the top of the key, only to miss off the back iron. Before the Comets could rebound and try another game-tying attempt, the final buzzer blared, sending the raucous crowd of 1,000 into a frenzy while wrapping up a 54-51, season-altering victory for Tahlequah.
“Probably the most exciting game of my high school career so far,” Tahlequah’s Lain Wright said moments after getting mobbed by the celebratory student section that rushed the floor.
In a campaign overflowing with close calls and disheartening setbacks, the Tigers (6-13, 3-6 Metro Lakes Conference) found the season’s punctuating triumph they had been looking for.
“We’ve been looking all year for that — that one,” Tahlequah coach Mike Leafgreen said. “We had high aspirations in August during team camp, and things haven’t gone that way...but, I think they just needed this one to get over the hump.”
Needing a trey to tie on the Comets’ last possession, Bishop Kelley coach Danny Limes opted not to call a timeout and set up a play.
“I want them to play through that stuff,” said Limes, whose team fell to 13-6 and 7-2. “When you can’t execute, you just want them to play through. We couldn’t execute a set, and we tried to get in a set there at the end with plenty of time left, and we can’t get into a set. You can second-guess yourself there, but my gut always tells me to let them play through it.
“We had plenty of time, just didn’t execute down the stretch.”
The Tigers were the ones that took care of business in the closing minutes.
After falling behind 49-41 midway through the fourth quarter, Tahlequah mounted a comeback that really started churning once Matt Alberty converted a traditional three-point play, which trimmed the Comets’ lead to 49-46 with three minutes left. From there, Tahlequah and Bishop Kelley traded leads in the waning moments.
A shot from underneath the basket by Vader put Tahlequah up 50-49 with 1:59 left, and the Comets reclaimed a 51-50 edge on JD Limes’ jumper at the 1:24 mark.
Sixteen seconds later, though, Wright drove the right baseline and was fouled on his way up, sending the senior point guard to the free-throw line for two shots. He drained them both, and Tahlequah would never hand the lead back over.
“Felt really good to finish those free throws,” said Wright, who tied Cunningham for team-high scoring honors with 14 points.
On Bishop Kelley’s next possession, Josh Limes was called for traveling violation. Tahlequah, then, returned the favor with a wild shot by Wright, which resulted in Cunningham fouling on the rebound attempt.
Needing a basket to reclaim the lead, Bishop Kelley turned the ball over again when Craig’s pass was deflected by Cunningham and stolen by the Tigers’ Will Carlile, who got the ball to Vader to set up Tahlequah’s critical fast-break points.
“We had a few breakdowns, defensively, but then when it came down to it at the end, in crunch time, we had two stops in a row when we needed it,” said Leafgreen, who had Alberty and Vader chip in with 10 points apiece. “Those sealed the deal for us. Those were huge.”
The Tigers were able to withstand an extended period of time in the third and fourth quarters when Craig took over for Bishop Kelley. The junior guard, after recording only four points in the first half, made 5 of 8 field-goal attempts in the second half for a game-high 16 points. However, Bishop Kelley stopped feeding him the ball as time dwindled away.
“Our shot selection wasn’t very good, and we just didn’t execute,” Limes said when asked about not getting Craig the ball. “When you stand and watch on offense, you’re not going to be very effective. We stood around a lot tonight and watched.”
The Tigers, despite no bench production, managed to make 40 percent (20 of 50) of shots from the floor. Bishop Kelley was a tad off Tahlequah’s pace at 37.5 percent (21 of 56) in game that featured 14 lead changes and six ties.
The victory for the Tigers came three nights after Tahlequah pushed Coweta to the limit in another upset bid. And ironically enough, the Tigers’ win over Bishop Kelley should all but wrap up Coweta’s Metro Lakes Conference crown with two weeks left to play in the regular season.
“We had an opportunity to still compete for the conference,” Limes said, “and chances are now, since we have two losses, that Coweta will end up being the league champion. The rest of us are on the outside looking in. We had a lot to play for...and they just whipped us.”
For Tahlequah, its the team’s first win over Bishop Kelley since beating the Comets, 54-50, in Tulsa on Dec. 15, 2009.
“That’s the best feeling we’ve had in some time,” said Cunningham, who was in seventh grade the last time Tahlequah beat the Comets. “We needed that a lot.”
Tahlequah 54, Bishop Kelley 51
BK 13 11 12 15 — 51
Tah 12 14 8 20 — 54
Bishop Kelley (13-6, 7-2): Matt Craig 16, Kale Carson 9, Josh Limes 7, Daniel Smith 7, Irwin 4, Adams 4, JD Limes 2, Litzinger 2.
Tahlequah (6-13, 3-6): Lain Wright 14, Dalton Cunningham 14, Matt Alberty 10, Jake Vader 10, Will Carlile 6.