KnYAKIMA - The can-do cowboy, freshman Ryker Van Belle, hit the shot heard 'round the 1B world this past Saturday. The seldom-used underclassman hit the winning three-point bucket in overtime to give the Sunnyside Christian boys their second consecutive 1B State basketball title in a 38-37 finals victory over Tekoa-Oakesdale.
"He claims he closed his eyes when he shot it," noted Van Belle's coach, Dean Wagenaar.
Eyes wide shut for the shot of a lifetime?
From downtown, no less?
Somehow that's fitting for this topsy-turvy title tilt in which both teams struggled at crucial times in hitting supposed gimme free throw shots that could have sewn up the game for Sunnyside Christian in regulation or for the Nighthawks in overtime.
For three quarters, Saturday's finale followed the same script as the Knights' three previous tourney wins last week: hitting just enough shots, taking care of the ball and playing a smothering defense.
Paced by seven first-half points from tourney MVP Joel Koopmans, cold-shooting Sunnyside Christian overcame an early 5-0 deficit to lead the Nighthawks 17-10 at intermission.
"Offensively in the first half, other than Joel, we were horrible," Wagenaar said of his team's struggles on offense. "We had open looks but we couldn't make anything."
But on defense the Knights slowly built their lead to double digits, 26-16, heading into the final quarter. Koopmans, again, provided the bulk of the offense with seven third-quarter points.
It was fourth verse same as the rest, as in the previous three tourney games, the Knights were in control heading into the final eight minutes of play.
Sunnyside Christian still led by nine, 32-23, with just over three minutes to play and had the ball. Time to ice the game, stretch the court and start celebrating a title repeat.
"I felt great, we had the ball," Wagenaar said of seemingly having the game in hand. "That's when we melted down."
The first chink in the Knights' armor came when a turnover led to a Nighthawk breakaway bucket the other way.
"That ignited them," Wagenaar said of the transition.
Things got worse when Sunnyside Christian suddenly started missing from the charity stripe as Tekoa-Oakesdale fouled to get the ball back.
The Knights obliged as a missed one-and-one opportunity led to a nothing-but-net three by the Nighthawks' Kelly Cook, who scored seven of his 15 points in the final quarter.
All told, the Knights hit just 5-of-18 free throw attempts between the fourth quarter and the overtime period that ensued when Tekoa-Oakesdale knotted things at 32-32 with 13 seconds to play.
In the extra session, it looked like the Nighthawks were going to turn that 16-6 fourth quarter run into a title as they outscored Sunnyside Christian 5-0 to start overtime.
But then it was Tekoa-Oakesdale's turn to struggle at the free throw line, opening the door for the Knights to stay in contention.
With about three minutes left in the extra session, Koopmans finally got Sunnyside Christian on the board with a bucket. The Knights followed with a free throw to close within 37-35 with 90 ticks left on the clock. But on the ensuing play one of Sunnyside Christian's primary ball handlers, Jesse Brouwer, fouled out of the contest.
Enter the can-do cowboy, Van Belle, fresh off the bench to fill in for Brouwer.
"In practice Ryker sometimes hits two or three in a row from outside," Wagenaar said of his hunch to put the freshman in during such a crucial time. "He's a bullrider and he doesn't think before he shoots. He just catches and shoots. I thought maybe he could knock one down for us."
Oh, he knocked one down all right, but not without plenty of drama.
After Tekoa-Oakesdale missed a pair of free throws, Koopmans was fouled the other way with 35 seconds to play and the Knights still trailing 37-35.
Koopmans missed the two charity shots, but teammate Jason Friend grabbed the offensive rebound on the second miss and kicked it out to Van Belle, who drilled it from three-land for the game-winner and a 38-37 Knight lead.
With 13 seconds to play there was still time for the Nighthawks to attempt a game-winner of their own.
"I told the guys to keep them outside and switch every pick," Wagenaar said of defending the play. The strategy worked, as the Nighthawks' desperation toss hit backboard but was well off the mark.
Koopmans led the Knights with 20 points and Friend tallied six points to go with nine rebounds. Teammate Steven Broersma also had six rebounds.
With the win and title in hand, Wagenaar said he still doesn't know why his team struggled late at the free throw line. "Maybe it was fatigue or nervousness," he said.
The free throw flummox was all the more surprising considering how well the Knights canned their charity tosses the night before, Friday, in a 40-24 semifinal win over Entiat.
Koopmans scored nine of Sunnyside Christian's 11 first-quarter points, as the Knights led by five after one quarter and by as much as 18-8 late in the first half before a run by the Tigers closed the gap to 18-14.
"We contested everything they put up," Wagenaar said of his team's typical tight drum defense.
But it was on the offensive end, especially the perimeter, where the Knights needed a spark.
"One of you guys has to hit some shots because you're open," Wagenaar told his troops at the half.
Senior Marc De Jong heeded the call and canned back-to-back treys-his only points of the night-to again put the Knights back up by double digits in the third period.
"That was the separation we needed," Wagenaar observed. "Just like that it's a 12-point game."
Sunnyside Christian cruised from there, canning 10-of-16 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter to ice the game. Koopmans alone was 5-of-7 from the line in the quarter.
Koopmans scored 18 points and hauled down eight rebounds to lead the Knights, while Friend had nine rebounds and blocked three shots.
Dylan Crawley led Entiat with eight points.
A year ago Sunnyside Christian rolled into the State 1B tourney undefeated and the heavy favorite on the way to the crown.
This year the Knights lost seven players from that team and in a rebuild or reload stage lost a rare home game, as well as rare back-to-back losses on the road.
With five losses they weren't exactly favored to take it all.
"Last year there was a lot more pressure," admitted Wagenaar. "This year is somewhat surprising. To win a title is hard."
The coach said the keys to this year's title run were fewer turnovers and an especially stingy defense.
"Defensively we created match-up problems for other teams," Wagenaar noted. "We had enough quickness to contain their guards, and with Jason in the middle he altered a lot of shots. Other teams really struggled to score inside."
Even so, taking home the State's biggest hardware was still a surprise given the, at times, struggles on offense.
"Offensively, we had droughts and you don't know when that's going to hit in tournament time," Wagenaar said. "But we played such great defense and had a lack of turnovers."
The back-to-back tourney titles means four State championships in the last seven years for the boys program.
Sunnyside Christian (20-5) graduates four seniors from this year's team: Friend, Brouwer, DeJong and Koopmans.
With only one starter returning, it'll be time to reload again next year for the Knights in search of a three-peat.
"We'll have to get back out there and get to work," says Wagenaar.
A rebuilt Sunnyside Christian team did it this year in winning all the marbles.
Next year the Knights and their can-do cowboy will look to do it again.
- The boys overtime finals contest followed a trend on trophy Saturday, as the three previous contests that day also went into overtime. "We're not controlling this, the good Lord is," Wagenaar said.
- Tourney MVP Joel Koopmans came within four points of reaching the 1,000-point total for his career. A canceled regular season game with DeSales likely hurt his chances.
- Brouwer and Koopmans are the first players in Knight basketball history to start for consecutive State championship teams.
- Sunnyside Christian held its first three opponents at State this year to 25 points or less.