If ever a team deserved to leave the court with a feel-good victory they had snatched from the jaws of defeat, it was the Tanager boys varsity.
The basketball gods had not looked down kindly upon Coach Jay Drake's ballclub very often this winter as a string of frustrating losses to good teams continued to accumulate. Even against Harrisburg last Friday night, it appeared throughout a stomach-churning fourth quarter that somehow, some way it was going to happen to Vermillion yet again.
But because they played their hearts out for every last second of this 32-minute game and quite frankly refused to lose, the Tanagers made enough things happen so that, when Harrisburg's final-second desperation shot from the sideline at half-court just missed wide left, the game belonged to the good guys, 44-43.
Not only was it Vermillion's fifth win of the season but also their second one-point cliffhanger over Harrisburg, which had been the top team in neighboring District 7A.
"We are really proud of our guys," Drake said. "It's nice to see us play for 32 minutes." His club improved the job they did on the Tigers back in the season opener, outrebounding the taller Tigers this time, 28-27.
The Tanagers did not lead in this game at any point in the last 11 minutes until senior guard Jason Rasmussen, with that proverbial ice water cursing through his veins, swished the tying and go-ahead free throws with 2.6 seconds left.
Those heroics climaxed a final four minutes of scoreboard time that took well over 15 minutes of real time to transpire. Even the very last 12 seconds had more twists and turns than any writer of fiction could create.
But let's start at the beginning. For a change the Tanagers did not create for themselves a first- or second-quarter hole from which they would have to climb. In rolling to a 15-8 lead, Vermillion got six valuable points from Aaron Steele, a trey and two free shots from Cole Andre, two Kylen Freidel free throws and a perfect feed from Freidel to Rasmussen for a layup.
To start the second period Freidel scored first, then freshman Austin Krier drove the baseline for a layup to restore a seven-point lead. The margin stayed between three and five points for VHS until Andre's jumper made it 25-19 nearing halftime. At the buzzer Andre let fly one of his patented three-point jumpshot attempts, and the ball dipped low into the net, spun around a couple of times but popped out.
The Tanagers heard Harrisburg footsteps to start the third quarter as the Tigers scored four straight buckets to take a 27-25. Three of them were from speedster guard Eric Hensch, who unfortunately for Tiger opponents is only a sophomore. Hensch up to this point had 16 of Harrisburg's 27 points, time and again flashing through the Tanager defense for layups or leading breakways on his team's transition offense.
It took 4 minutes, 45 seconds of the second half for Vermillion to score, but the first basket was another three-pointer from Andre. Later in the quarter Andre and Freidel teamed up for a picture-perfect in-bounds play and layup as Andre flipped the ball in from the baseline and Freidel zipped past the Tiger defense for an easy two. A Hensch basket gave Harrisburg a 31-30 lead with one quarter left.
Despite being outscored 12-5 in the period, the Tanagers had kept their balance and were within one.
Andre's third three-pointer of the game tied the score at 33-33. For the next four minutes the Tanagers continued to get good looks at the basket but couldn't get their shots to fall. The exception was Kylen "Fearless" Freidel.
The senior forward was a demon all night long, blocking shots of taller Tiger players as he defended 6'6" Patrick Draisey and 6'3" Jordan Budde, crashing to the floor, diving for loose balls, and snaring 10 rebounds as well as three assists. His coach tabbed it as Freidel's best game of the year.
"Fearless" got the Tanagers to 35 with a drive up the lane. With 4:26 left he sacrificed himself with another hard drive to a score, and though he was fouled roughly, he picked himself up and sank the subsequent free throw.
Hensch's 19th and 20th points and the third basket of the final quarter for Draisey seemed to put Harrisburg on a victory track with another three-point lead. But Freidel yet again saved the Tanagers with a floater over the outstretched arms of the Tigers' tall timber with 2:15 remaining.
Draisey made a free throw, but importantly also missed one, at the 2:02 mark. Forty seconds later the Tanagers, down 42-40, made a defensive stop and took a time-out. They turned the ball over nine seconds later. The Tigers kept the ball until taking a time-out of their own with 47 seconds left.
Hensch's free throw made it 43-40 with 0:42 to go, but he couldn't make his second try, leaving it a one-possession game. It came down then to the final frantic 15 seconds, a small span of time in a senior's basketball career, but 15 seconds which Rasmussen may never forget.
Vermillion needed a three-pointer and who better than Andre to take that shot. He got open on the left side, and his shot arched deep into the net but came back out. But out of nowhere came Rasmussen, flying through the air across the lane to flip the rebounding ball back up onto the backboard before one of the tall Tigers could get it. As Rasmussen's body went sprawling onto the tile out of bounds, the ball amazingly caromed neatly off the glass and through the net. The deficit was again only one point.
The clock showed 0:12 as Harrisburg tried to in-bound the ball from beneath the Tanager basket. The Vermillion defense choked off all open men, and when the in-bounding Tiger had to throw the ball somewhere or lose possession, a gaggle of players from both teams ended up on the floor with the basketball. The jump-ball was called, and, lo and behold, the possession arrow was pointing in the Tanagers' favor. They had the ball back with nine seconds left!
After two Tanager time-outs, they put the ball into play, and Freidel was fouled with :05.6 remaining. But it was not yet a bonus free-throw situation, so Vermillion in-bounded the ball yet again. This time the Tiger defenders did their job, covering all possibilities. A desperation pass into the far left corner couldn't be handled cleanly by Rasmussen, and with only 4.5 seconds showing, it seemed all hope had been lost.
All that remained for Harrisburg to do was to get the ball into play cleanly and expect to be fouled immediately, but Rasmussen created a miracle. He burst past the Tiger to whom the ball was intended, stole the ball and was fouled in the process, setting the stage for his game-tying and game-winning free throws.
In a game where every point mattered, no matter when it was scored, the Tanagers made all 11 of their free throws—five by Freidel, four by Andre and two by Steele. Harrisburg took the same number of free shots but could make only five.
Freidel finished with 17 points, Andre 13, Steele six, Rasmussen six, and Krier two. Tyler Husby didn't score, but he did have three rebounds and two assists, and one play of his epitomized the Tanager effort. Husby tried to save a bounding ball from going out of bounds and crashed face first into the bottom row of the bleachers but refused to leave the game.
Hensch had 20 and Draisey 13 to lead Harrisburg. The Tigers missed all seven of their three-point attempts while shooting 42 percent (19 of 45). Vermillion made only three of its 21 long-distance tries, all of them by Andre, but that's nine more points than Harrisburg got from behiind the arc. The Tanagers shot 15 of 49 overall for 31 percent.
On Tuesday night, the Tanagers, who have played six games against top-10 Class "A" teams, played one of them, Wagner, dead even in the second half, but a 22-15 halftime margin held up in a 63-50 Red Raider win, their 14th in 17 games.
Freidel led VHS with 19 points. Steele added nine points and Andre eight points and seven assists. Krier scored seven, Husby four and Rasmussen three.
Wagner shot at a 48 percent clip (26 of 54) while the Tanagers had a respectable 43 percent night (19 of 44). The Red Raiders had 20 rebounds off the Vermillion boards among their 29 total rebounds. Freidel and Rasmussen had six boards each and Andre five among Vermillion's total of 21.
The Tanagers' last home game of the season will be a rescheduled date against Pine Ridge Monday. Only a varsity game will be played, tipping off at 5 p.m.