Playing against Owen County in the first round of the 31st District tournament last Wednesday night, the Henry County Wildcats were right where they wanted to be.
The Cats held Owen to their pre-game goal of less than 40 points; they ran their offense to perfection, taking very few bad shots and eating up large chunks of minutes until a shot came open; they kept a much-larger Owen squad out of the paint for much of the game; they took more shots than Owen from the free-throw line; they played, possibly, their best defensive game this season; and they had the chance to convert on the one play they had been practicing on all week in the closing seconds.
But first-year head coach Derek Springate and his Wildcats came up just short as they lost 34-32 to end their season with a 16-13 record. A last-second 3-pointer was off the mark and Owen escaped with the narrow 2-point win. The same play Henry had been working on all week turned out to be the final possession of the season.
“Our players did everything that was asked of them. We really felt like we had the chance to not only win this game but win the district,” Springate said. “When the final horn sounded, that’s when it hit them. They were very emotional and upset. A lot of them took individual blame, they thought it was their fault but it wasn’t. It was a team effort, we win together as a team and we lose as a team.”
The one objective the Wildcats had coming into the game that they did not achieve was making more free throws than Owen, which could have been the difference in the outcome. Henry was 11-of-21 and missed the front end of three one-and-one attempts. Owen was 12-of-16.
While Springate did did say he was proud his team was able to win 16 games in a season with little expectations coming in from outside the team, he wanted to point out that the season was not a success to him or his players. They wanted to win the district tournament and contend for the 8th Region title, and they did neither. He reiterated that his expectations were higher than most, even though the squad lost six seniors to graduation last year, had a new coach and a new system to adjust to.
“If you ask me if the season was a success, I would say no,” Springate said. “We had two goals and we didn’t achieve those. A lot of people didn’t think we would be successful this year as far as wins and losses, and we got lots of pats on the back with how many wins we got. To us, that was just lowering our own expectations. We played hard, competed, got better and did almost everything we wanted to do. But the end was a disappointment.”
Henry and Owen split its two basketball games during the regular season, but last Wednesday’s showdown was as intense as any Henry had been in this season. There was a lot riding on the line with the winner advancing to the district-title game and earning an automatic bid into the 8th Region tournament.
The Wildcats led for much of the opening quarter before Owen went ahead with one minute on the clock and held a 11-8 lead after the first eight-minute stretch. After a slow-played second quarter, Owen was in front by just one point, 15-14. The Cats continued to stick to their pre-game plan of running their offense until they got open looks, including one possession where more than two minutes ticked of the clock before Pete Baldwin scored inside to tie the game.
At the break, the Wildcats were still right where they wanted to be.
“In the locker room at halftime, I made a point to the kids that I thought the referees weren’t going to beat us because it was a well-called game and Owen wasn’t going to beat us because we’re a better team than them. Only Henry can beat Henry,” Springate said. “I give Owen credit because they did what they needed to do, but it never should have come down to the end like that.”
With the slow play, the Henry starters — Pete Baldwin, Spud Baldwin, Connor Jeffries, Trevor Raisor and Lance Timberlake — got very few trips to the bench. Erick Butler played the final 34 seconds of the first half, giving Timberlake a break down low, and the only other substitute was Tommy Gray, who played sparingly in the first half but was on the floor much more in the second.
The biggest point spread in the tightly-played matchup was four points — Owen hit a 3-pointer to go ahead 18-14 early in the third quarter, Owen was ahead 23-19 midway through the third, and Owen was ahead 25-21 entering the final quarter.
Midway through the final quarter, Raisor missed a 3-pointer from the wing but grabbed his own rebound, threw the ball off an Owen player while falling out of bounds, and eventually got the ball back at the top of the key, where he drained a 3-pointer to tie the game at 27.
With 55.2 seconds left, Pete Baldwin netted two free throws to put Henry in front 32-30. Owen then tied the game with 32 seconds left, setting up the dramatic finish.
Springate said Henry had the basketball and was was planning to take it to the basket with just five seconds left, but the ball was stolen earlier and Henry was whistled for a foul with just 4.9 seconds remaining. Owen hit both free throws. That’s when Springate decided not to call a timeout and run the same play he had been practicing all week.
“It never entered my mind that we were going to lose that game,” Springate said. “We had been practicing that same play all week with no exceptions — if we were down by one point, two points or three points and had the ball, that’s the play we were going to run.”
After Owen hit both free throws, Springate said he did not call a timeout because his players knew the play they were going to run, Owen stayed in a man-to-man defense, and Owen did not guard the player throwing in the ball. Pete Baldwin took the pass, raced up court and found Raisor far out on the wing for the last-second shot, but it was just off as the buzzer sounded.
“Looking back at it, I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” Springate said. “I will let Trevor shoot that shot every time. He had been on fire the last few games, hitting 48- to 50-percent of his 3-pointers. He’s the guy I want shooting it. It just didn’t go in.”
It was an emotional end for Henry, and a celebrating one for Owen.
Jeffries led Henry with 16 points, while Pete Baldwin scored eight, Spud Baldwin scored four, Raisor scored three and Timberlake scored one. Henry had zero points from its bench.
Meanwhile, no Owen player reached double digits in scoring with seven different players scoring. Owen improved to 15-9, lost to Gallatin County for the district title on Saturday night and play in the 8th Region tournament at Henry County High School this week.
The Wildcats ended the regular season riding a four-game winning streak and were looking for a perfect peak, but Owen put a stop to what could have been a long post-season run.
“I told them afterwards that I was sorry, and I wish we could have done something differently,” Springate said. “But we left it all out there on the floor. It just wasn’t meant to be.
“As far as progression, I think everyone was pleased with where we started with a new coach, new players and a new system,” added Springate, who wanted to point out that he was thankful for the support he received from the community in his first year at HCHS. “We knew it would take time. We wanted to be playing our best ball at the end of the year, and we felt like we were. I wouldn’t change anything.”
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