For the first 16 minutes of Saturday night’s showdown between Finney County rivals Holcomb and Garden City boys basketball teams, the host Buffaloes had things going their way.
Good shot selection, solid defense, pinpoint free-throw shooting and being the aggressor.
All of those components produced a 38-22 halftime lead over the visiting Longhorns as the teams battled in the final game of the Clarion Inn Southwest Classic at The Garden.
In the second half, however, things changed. And changed in a big, big way.
In a reversal of fortune, it was the Longhorns who became the aggressor, getting better shots, playing solid defense and suddenly got hot at the free-throw line.
What resulted was a stunning rally as the Longhorns came from behind to produce a dramatic 62-57 overtime victory over a dazed Buffs team and left fans to ponder the turnaround.
It was, in so many ways, it was the classic ending to the three-day Classic.
This is what both schools had hoped for in three previous meetings, all of which resulted in double-digit wins, first for Garden City and then the last two seasons by Holcomb.
After making their way back from the big first-half hole, the Longhorns got it tied up and into overtime at 51-all. There, they took control by scoring the first six points for a 56-51 lead and a late 3-pointer by Caleb Tramp cut the Garden deficit to 60-57 with 20 seconds left.
Conner VanCleave missed two free throws at the 17-second mark to give the Buffs one final chance to tie it up again. Tramp, though, was just off on a deep trey from the top of the key, and Christian Merz was fouled with 1.8 seconds and made two icing charities, setting off a wild celebration by the Longhorns at midcourt.
In a game that suffered through 57 fouls and 70 free-throw attempts combined by the two teams, it was the Longhorns that persevered through adversity that beset both teams by the whistles that were blown throughout the 36 minutes of action.
Holcomb shot 45 free throws, made 28 of them (21 of 30 in the final half and overtime) while Garden City was 21 of 25 at the charity stripe. But after going 15 of 16 in the first half, the Buffs only went to the line nine times, making six in the final 20 minutes of play.
“It wasn’t pretty in the first half,” Holcomb coach Chad Novack said of his team’s 7-of-15 free-throw effort, eight turnovers and 1-of-5 long-range shooting from behind the arc. “I thought Garden City did a really good of taking us out of our sets, and I think the atmosphere kinda got to the kids early. It was like the deer in the headlights thing. We were timid and didn’t do any of our normal inside/out plays and didn’t play our game. But Garden was responsible for a lot of that.”
Garden City head coach Jacy Holloway, for the most part, agreed with Novack about how the game changed from the first half to the final, when the Buffs couldn’t seem to find their way into their offense, scoring just 19 points over the final 20 minutes after exploding for 38 in the first 16 minutes.
“We fouled their 3-point shooters twice, and you can’t do that when you’re up the way we were,” Holloway said. “We didn’t get defensive rebounds and didn’t hold them to one shot the way we did in the first half. We settled for jumpers rather than going inside in the third quarter.”
In the first half, Holloway said his team’s defense was razor sharp.
“We got our hands in the passing lanes, created some turnovers which led to us getting out in transition,” Holloway said. “We did a much better job of running our offense then.”
The discrepancy in the final half free throwing was not lost on either coach.
“The free throws were big, and we didn’t do that in the third quarter,” Holloway said. “In my head, I was still trying to figure out how they (Holcomb) got some of those offensive rebounds. But we settled for the outside shot, and that’s not really our game.”
Trey Sleep, Holcomb’s 6-4 leading scorer, scored 13 of his 22 points in the final half and overtime, and finished just behind Merz’ game-high 23 points.
“It was a crazy game,” Sleep said afterward. “The game was really intense, and I thought we started to handle things a little better in the second half. Garden City’s a really good team and we knew it would be tough out there.
“I thought we worked the ball inside more and picked up the intensity. It’s really cool to be able to play Garden City, and then to be able to beat them.”
It was Merz who got the ‘Horns’ rally under way at the outset of the third quarter when he was fouled on a 3-point attempt, then drained all of them to begin the long climb back.
After Garden had scored the final 10 points of the first half to go from up six, 28-22, to that 38-22 pad, the Longhorns had a 14-7 advantage in the third, slicing the deficit to nine, 45-36, heading to the final period.
And when Holcomb then went on a 9-0 run in the first three minutes of the fourth to knot the score at 45 on a steal and layup by Merz, things were tighter than the seven miles that separate the two towns.
The Buffs were finally able to get something going on offense, getting a 12-footer from Luis Rodriguez and a pair of free throws from Jared Koster (14 of 14 for the game and a team-high 20 points) to make it a 49-45 Garden lead with 3:38 remaining.
Holcomb responded with a follow shot by Sleep and two charities from Calen Rupp and the game was knotted again, at 49, with 1:56 left. Koster then swiped an errant Longhorn pass and laid it in for a 51-49 lead with 48 seconds, only to have the Longhorns return the favor on a Dalton Gottschalk steal with 19 seconds, who then hit Sleep underneath for a layup and the game was all squared.
After a timeout with 13 seconds on the clock, the Buffs worked for a final game-winning shot, but Miguel Olivas couldn’t get anything up that was close and with 0:00.4 seconds showing, the Longhorns didn’t have enough time to get off a potential game-winner.
That set the stage for OT, and the four minutes looked every bit like the rest of the game as the parade to the free-throw line continued.
The Longhorns, in fact, shot 16 charities in the 4-minute OT period, making nine of them while only getting a Gottschalk driving layup at the 2:29 mark for the only field goal in the extra period.
In the final 2:01, Garden missed a pair of shots while Holcomb had a turnover. In between, there were charity shots galore, mostly by the Longhorns.
The whistle parade resulted in three Buffs exiting the game — Olivas, Koster and Rodriguez, while the Longhorns managed to keep all their players on the floor, but did have four players with four violations each.
Saturday’s win kept the No. 1 4A-II Longhorns unbeaten at 4-0, while the Buffs fall to 3-3. Next up for the Buffs will be a Friday road test at Denver South. For the Longhorns, they will be at Colby, also on Friday, to open Great West Activities Conference play. Both are final tests before the holiday break.
Holcomb (4-0) — Showater 0-0 1-2 1, Merz 5-8 11-14 23, Stegman 0-1 0-0 0, Gottschalk 4-5 3-5 11, Ramsey 0-3 0-0 0, Sleep 7-10 8-13 22, Rupp 0-4 4-7 4, Casaus 0-1 0-0 0, VanCleave 0-1 1-3 1. Totals 16-33 28-45 62.
Garden City (3-3) — Tramp 6-13 2-3 15, Olivas 2-6 1-3 5, Koster 3-12 14-14 20, Reyes 2-2 0-0 4, Leal 0-2 0-0 0, Rodriguez 2-3 0-0 4, Harp 0-0 0-0 0, Love 1-1 0-0 2, Acosta 1-1 4-4 7, Rincones 0-0 0-0 0, Aguilar 0-0 0-1 0. Totals 17-39 21-25 57.
Holcomb 12 10 14 15 11 — 62
Garden City 17 21 7 6 6 — 57
3-point goals—Holcomb 2-12 (Merz 2-5, Stegman 0-1, Ramsey 0-2, Rupp 0-3, VanCleave 0-1), Garden City 2-9 (Tramp 1-4, Olivas 0-2, Koster 0-2, Acosta 1-1). Rebounds—Holcomb 27 (Sleep 9), Garden City 21 (Tramp, Olivas, Reyes 4 each). Turnovers—Holcomb 16, Garden City 12. Fouls—Holcomb 24, Garden City 33. Fouled out—Garden City (Olivas, Koster, Rodriguez).