By Brad Morris
Slater Search wasn’t expecting to have the basketball in his hand on Friday with less than a second remaining.
But sometimes a team has to improvise.
“The play wasn’t designed for me, but Westfall took away our first option and I was wide open, so Joe Wray inbounded the basketball to me,” Search said. “I let it fly and I thought the shot was going to be short after I released it.
“When the basketball went through the net to give us the win, it was an unbelievable feeling. I was stunned.”
Stunning would be a good way to describe the Circleville Tigers rallying from a seven-point deficit in the final 56 seconds to stun the visiting Westfall Mustangs with a 56-54 instant classic victory to conclude the Horizon Holiday Classic.
“I told our guys after the game that this is the proudest moment I’ve had here coaching Circleville basketball,” Cody Carpenter said. “We’ve talked before about how this group is learning how to win consistently at the varsity level. To see them face adversity, down seven with less than a minute left and rally for the win was pretty incredible.”
Briley Cramer led all scorers with 28 points on 10 of 15 (66.7 percent) shooting for the Tigers while chipping in seven rebounds and four assists. Search followed with nine points and 13 rebounds, and Wray contributed six points and five assists.
The Tigers started their road back when Cramer drove to the basket and Preston Hulse drained a three-pointer from the right wing to trim the Westfall lead down to 52-50 with 28.5 seconds remaining.
“Preston struggled for most of the game, but we talk to our guys about staying with it when things aren’t going our way and continuing to battle,” Carpenter said. “That’s what Preston did. He got the basketball, he put up the shot with confidence and he drilled it.
“Preston showed a lot of composure and played with the proper mentality in that situation, and I’m proud of him.”
Westfall threw the ensuing inbound pass out of bounds, giving the Tigers an extra possession that the Mustangs would regret.
Cramer drove from the top of the key to the basket to score and drew a foul on the play. The Circleville junior drained the free throw for his 10th point of the quarter to give the Tigers a 53-52 advantage.
“I can’t say enough good things about Briley Cramer and the way he is playing right now,” Carpenter said. “He literally put us on his back at times and made big play after big play after big play.
“He was determined to get to the basket, he drew contact and finished a huge three-point lead to bring us back and give us the lead.”
Blaec Bugher was fouled on the floor with 3.9 seconds remaining and drained both free throws to put the Mustangs back ahead 54-53.
“I told Blaec going through the handshake line that he stepped up there and did what a senior is supposed to do, leading and making two huge free throws for Westfall,” Carpenter said. “That’s one of the things that made this game special, because you had players on both teams battling, scrapping and making big plays. It was a heavyweight battle between two teams that were both playing well.”
After the ball went out of bounds with 1.1 seconds left, Wray inbounded the basketball to the left of his own bench. Search caught the pass, turned, squared his body to the basket and put up his shot from approximately 24-feet away from the rim.
The Circleville bench erupted in celebration and the student section rushed the floor to celebrate Search’s clutch shot and the improbable win for the Tigers.
“When Slater caught the basketball, I was yelling for what seemed like five seconds for him to shoot the basketball, which is something I normally don’t do because we want Slater in the post since he is 6-foot-4. In that situation, however, he had to shoot the basketball and he stepped up and buried one of the biggest shots we’ve had during my time here at Circleville,” Carpenter said. “We had a tremendous crowd here for the Holiday Classic, it was biddy cheer night and it felt like a tournament atmosphere.
“To see our students rush the floor and celebrate with our players, it was a pretty special moment for our program.”
Westfall entered the fourth quarter trailing 36-34 but put together an 18-9 run to take its largest lead of the night at 52-45.
Casey Cline opened the surge with a pair of drives to the basket and closed the run by splitting two free throws. Henry Barnes scored a pair of baskets, Bugher scored on a drive and knocked down a pair of free throws and Brody Clark drained a huge triple from the right wing.
“I can’t say enough about the way our guys competed and the run they put together to start the fourth quarter and take a seven-point lead,” Westfall coach Christian Meister said. “One thing that made it special is we had a number of players from Casey Cline, to Blaec Bugher, to Henry Barnes, to Brody Clark and I’m sure I’m leaving out a kid or two all step up and contribute.
“We didn’t close out the game. We had a tough turnover and missed a one-and-one from the free throw line that gave Circleville an opportunity and, to its credit, Circleville took advantage of that and outexecuted us in the final minute.”
Cline paced the Mustangs with 15 points, Clark scored 14, Bugher had 12 and Barnes chipped in seven.
The Tigers (6-4) continue non-league play on Wednesday when they welcome former South Central Ohio League rival Miami Trace (8-1) to the Horizon Gymnasium.
“We’re going to let our kids celebrate this win, enjoy the New Year and then we’ll get back to work and prepare for a very good Miami Trace team,” Carpenter said. “We’ve won a couple of games in a row now; we’ve matched our win total from last season through just 10 games and we beat a very solid Westfall team.
“We need to take confidence from this win but at the same time have this win make us even hungrier to come out here and play at our very best against Miami Trace.”
The Mustangs (6-4) resume Scioto Valley Conference play on Friday with a trip to Unioto (5-4).
“This is a tough loss for our guys, but I know that they will bounce back from this, learn from our mistakes and I think this will actually make us a better team for the stretch run,” Meister said. “When we’ve faced adversity this season, our guys have done a nice job of learning from it and continuing to compete as hard as they can.
“This is a group that works very hard, and I enjoy coaching these guys. They deserve to win a championship, whether it’s the conference, a sectional or a district and get the experience of cutting down a net. That’s what we’re working toward as we enter the second half of the season here in early January.”
WESTFALL — Brody Clark 5-1-14, Casey Cline 6-1-15, Blaec Bugher 3-5-12, Brydan Gall 1-0-2, Henry Barnes 3-1-7, Seth Gifford 1-0-2, Jeremiah Layton 1-0-2. Three-point goals — Clark (3), Cline (2) and Bugher. Total — 20-44 8-16 54.
CIRCLEVILLE — Preston Hulse 1-0-3, Briley Cramer 10-6-28, Joe Wray 3-0-6, Drew Thornsley 1-0-2, Ian Warden 2-0-4, Slater Search 3-1-9, Ed Kirk 2-0-4. Three-point goals — Cramer (2), Search (2) and Hulse. Total — 22-49 7-10 56.
Quarter scores 1 2 3 4 F
Westfall 13 9 12 20 54
Circleville 13 12 11 20 56