By BRETT MARSHALL
Sophomore guard Gabe Martinez, the overtime hero, was speechless.
Second-year head coach Matt Crist was looking for anybody to embrace, and there were plenty of supporters nearby.
After Wichita County had rallied from a five-point deficit in overtime and pulled out a stirring 44-41 victory over Southwestern Heights, emotions were all over the floor at the Perryman Athletic Complex on Saturday night when the Hi-Plains League tournament title game concluded.
"I really don't know what to say," said Martinez, who nailed a baseline jumper from 12 feet that came on the edge of the baseline and from behind the backboard and somehow found its way in with 37 seconds left in OT to give the Indians a 41-40 lead.
Oscar Sigala's free throw at 34.9 seconds tied it but then he missed what would have been the go-ahead charity.
Once again, here came Martinez to the rescue. With only 22 seconds on the clock, Martinez dribbled down the right side of the lane, went up and somehow got a bank shot from 10 feet to sneak into the basket to provide Wichita County with a 43-41 lead that it would not surrender.
"I came in as a freshman (Crist's first year to coach) and he told all of us that if we worked hard and never give up, good things would happen," Martinez said. "I was just trying to draw a foul there and was fortunate that the baskets went in."
Heights' 6-6 center Cory Ryan missed a point-blank layup with nine seconds to go and then senior Breck Fletcher canned 1-of-2 free throws for a three-point lead with 7.2 seconds left. Sigala's desperation 3-pointer missed at the buzzer.
Once a basketball powerhouse in the 1960s and through the early to mid 1980s, the Indians (9-3) had fallen on hard times with their boys program. Not since 1995 had they appeared in the tournament title game and not since 1982, well before any of the current team members were born, did the Wichita Countians lay claim to the league tournament title (1982, a 45-39 victory over Syracuse).
"I'm surprised, I guess, as to how far we've come in the short time I've been here," Crist said. "Looking back to where we were last year, I couldn't be prouder of a group of young men. It's them. They've done all the hard work. Last year, we had the talent but they didn't buy into the system. This group has and it is so good to see if pay off."
Other than a brief 4-0 lead at the game's outset, the Mustangs, the No. 1 seed entering the tourney, found themselves trailing the entire game. They were down 17-10 after one quarter and then scoring came to a near halt in the second, with Heights winning the drought period, 3-2, to make it 19-13, Wichita County, at the half.
Heights (10-2) continued to slowly make its comeback in the third stanza and finished off trailing 26-24. The Indians still seemed to be holding to a comfortable 32-26 margin with 3:53 left in regulation, only to go scoreless the rest of the way. Heights, meanwhile, got a basket from Sigala, a putback from Ryan and a driving layup from Wes Winfrey to knot the score at 32 and that's the way regulation ended.
With Jacob Flores scoring on a traditional 3-point play, Sigala nailing a 3-pointer from downtown and Winfrey cashing in a pair of free throws, the Mustangs suddenly were in command, 40-35, with 1:25 to go in overtime. Fletcher then made one of two charities and followed with a bucket and free throw to pull to within one, 40-39, at the 1:05 mark. Winfrey and Sigala would make just 1-of-3 free throws down the stretch before it was time for Martinez' heroics to win the game.
"Coach (Scott) Stegman told me after Friday's game (a 52-50 Wichita County win over Holcomb) that it's (your) time," Crist said. "We've been waiting for something like this for a long time. It's pretty sweet."
The Indians were to savor the victory Saturday night and perhaps on Sunday, too, but then go back to work today to prepare for a big showdown game with rival Greeley County (9-1), the area's top-ranked boys team. A week earlier, the Jackrabbits had claimed the Western Kansas Liberty League tournament title and so Tuesday's game in Leoti will be for league supremacy and local bragging rights.
Wichita Co. 44, SW Heights 41 (OT)
WICHITA COUNTY (9-3) — Mehl 0-1 0-0 0, McKinney 2-3 0-0 6, Harkness 3-11 6-6 12, Fletcher 1-1 3-6 5, Martinez 4-7 3-4 12, Weilert 1-5 2-3 4, Bremer 1-12 1-2 3. Totals 12-40 15-21 44.
SOUTHWESTERN HEIGHTS (10-2) — Johnsrud 0-1 0-0 0, Hernandez 0-2 0-0 0, Winfrey 1-6 2-3 5, Sigala 4-13 4-9 15, Flores 3-5 1-2 7, Eakes 0-4 0-0 0, Ryan 4-10 206 10. Totals 12-41 9-20 41.
Wichita Co. 17 2 7 6 12 -- 44
SW Heights 10 3 11 8 9 -- 41
3-point goals — Wichita Co. 3-11 (McKinney 2-3, Martinez 1-2); SWH 4-12 (Winfrey 1-3, Sigala 3-8). Rebounds — Wichita Co. 28 (Bremer 9, Weilert 4); SWH 35 (Ryan 15, Winfrey 7). Fouls — Wichita Co. 15; SWH 16. Fouled out — Wichita Co. (Harkness).