In a hallway next to the gym where something nearly as unthinkable as the previous few days’ events had just unfolded, tears welled in Travis Bell’s eyes. His face grew red with emotion. He reached out and pulled Ty Pearson into a hug, where athletic director and head coach stayed for a moment, embracing after Highland’s 60-57 overtime loss to Century, a game so unbelievable it tempted you to forget about the circumstances that led to it.
Bell fought tears to mention he felt proud of the team. Pearson agreed. Neither man said much more. Bell bid farewell and walked away, leaving Pearson to digest what on earth had just happened — how the same team that had walked out on him earlier this week returned to play Friday’s game, fought like hell, and came so close to a statement win that it could be measured in millimeters.
For Pearson, whose Highland team on Tuesday said it wouldn’t return to play until he resigned, there was a lot to think about: How the Rams fell behind early, how they couldn’t quite take the lead, how they took a four-point lead in the fourth quarter, how they watched it vanish and lead to overtime, how they missed one free throw in the final seconds that would have tied the game.
For the moment, though, Pearson could only think of one thing.
“Just gratitude,” Pearson said. “Just thankfulness that the kids came back and played. They’ve been through a lot. They’re really good kids. Just glad they were playing. It was fun to watch them.”
Both Pearson and Bell declined to comment on how this game came together, on why the Rams changed their minds and decided to return to play.
This game featured several astonishing twists — in the final 10 seconds of regulation, both teams lost costly turnovers, and down as many as eight at one point, the Rams came roaring back to take the lead in the final minutes — but the most improbable was this: Earlier this week, when this newspaper reported Highland’s plan to sit out the rest of the season until Pearson resigned, it amounted to one of the more stunning stories to grace the area in some time.
Somehow, Friday’s game gave it a run for its money.
“It was good to see our guys fight,” Century coach Ryan Frost said. “District tournament’s gonna be a battle.”
That’s the next stop for both teams, but to get there, they had to endure a game that went back and forth so often a seesaw might blush.
Century (17-4, 3-1) entered the final seconds of the third frame with a 40-35 lead, but that’s when Highland (7-14, 3-5) engineered a run that changed the game.
Garrett Campbell, who totaled 11 points, stuck back a miss through a foul. He made the free throw. That cut the lead to two. Moments later, a loose ball caromed around Century’s basket, only for Highland to secure it and get it to junior Jayden Wright, who laid it in. Tie game. The Rams took the lead with a bucket from Raimon Barela, and they cushioned it when Rhidge Barela turned a steal into a layup, seizing a four-point advantage with four minutes to go, making a road game sound like the best home-court advantage in the country.
“They did a good job ball-pressuring us. It was turnovers,” said Frost, whose team lost 13 turnovers in the win. “Can’t win a game when you’re turning the ball over, so it felt like there was like three turnovers in a row, allowed them to get layup, foul, layup. Kinda dug ourselves in a hole.”
That was only the beginning. In the last 90 seconds of regulation, Century guard Zak Gillespie connected on his third triple of the night, handing the Diamondbacks a 49-46 lead. On the other end, Highland junior Ezra Godfrey answered with his own trey, knotting the game at 49, the final points of regulation.
In the extra session, after Century senior Bruin Fleischmann (12 points) helped his team take a 54-52 lead, Highland missed a triple, handing the Diamondbacks the ball with 35 seconds to go. Jordan Lee scored for a four-point lead. On the other end, Wright canned a critical trey. Century 56, Highland 55, 20 seconds left.
That forced the Rams to foul, Lee hit two more free throws and Century took a 58-55 lead with 17 seconds to go. So Highland dialed up a triple for Wright, who faked his first attempt. Harwell fell for it. Wright side stepped and unfurled the shot — only Harwell fouled him the act, sending Wright to the free throw line with a chance to tie the game.
Wright hit the first one. Made the second. Then he put a touch too much on the third, putting it off the back of the rim and into the arms of the Diamondbacks, who iced the game with more free throws. Wright finished with 13 points. The 14th eluded him.
“It would be nice to have a couple practices before we play a game,” Pearson said with a kind smile. “But they did great.”
Entertaining as the game was, it matters little for both teams moving forward, at least in terms of the postseason. Century, the top seed in 4A District 5, gets a bye to kick off next week’s district tournament. Highland will take the third seed into the 5A District 5/6 event.
That’s assuming the Rams play — they will “as far as I know,” Pearson said — but signs point toward Highland finishing things out in the postseason. Last week, they did beat Rigby, one of the state’s best teams, so it’s possible they could even challenge for a state tournament appearance.
Whatever the future holds for this Highland team, district tournament or not, the Rams followed a crazy story with an even crazier game. Good luck finding a sports book that would take odds on that.