I’m going to put a little disclaimer at the beginning of this…
Let me start by saying that I absolutely adore this bunch of Wildcats and in no way is my opinion of them changed over the past few days, however, I believe that total firsthand honesty (even if blended with a bit of opinion) is both fair and what should be expected from a rabid Kellogg fan such as myself.
I wrestled with how I would write this story from the second I left Meridian High School, thought about it the entire drive home, and wrote it as soon as I walked in my front door this evening.
It was a massive matchup on Saturday morning as the Wildcats were set to take on the Sugar-Salem Diggers in the consolation championship game at Meridian High School.
Both teams were the first victims of the two teams that were contending for a state title later that day and both teams had been narrowly defeated in those first games.
In reality, the winner of this game could potentially walk around with the knowledge that they may have taken fourth place, but they were nothing if not equals to whomever cut down the nets later that day.
However, after 32 minutes of play, neither team had relented and the game went into overtime, and then another overtime before Sugar-Salem walked away with a 62-60 win and a state trophy.
The Wildcats were led by three players who took control at various times and made sure that the game remained in the Wildcats control for the majority of the contest.
Early on it was senior Tanner Mueller who got the Wildcats going with quick offense and acrobatic defense.
Then it was Ryan Morgan who took control for the Wildcats, knocking down free throws and becoming a transition threat.
Finally, in overtime it was time for Chase Jerome to shine as he put the team on his back for much of the extra time.
The Wildcats trailed 15-12 after the opening quarter, but came alive in the second quarter to take a 28-23 lead headed into the intermission.
The anxious Kellogg faithful were just praying that the second half woes that had plagued the Wildcats in the first two games of the tournament wouldn’t continue and that the Cats would be able to put the game away as they had some many times.
They got their wish… partly.
The Wildcats did take control, using a slow but effective offense to extend their lead to 11 points as they headed into the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately it was a lead that they would squander.
Sugar-Salem, led by their giant scoring machine Chandler Pincock, would rally and force overtime.
Scoring 23 of his game-high 27 points in the second half and overtime periods, he led an offensive onslaught that the Wildcats simply didn’t have the power to stop.
In the first overtime, Kellogg had two chances at the free throw line to put Sugar-Salem away, but went 0-4 in those attempts.
The second overtime was a grit and grind affair with neither team willing to concede, but the chips ultimately landed in favor of the Diggers who got the last true possession of the ball game with the game tied at 60.
A possession that was played perfectly by both players involved.
Pincock calmly dribbled the ball with 19 seconds remaining, Morgan, the only Wildcat strong enough to challenge the brutish play of the Digger forward, waited for him at the three point line.
Pincock took off with about 7 seconds remaining, dribbling to right baseline before using an deep stepback (mixed with a slight push-off) to take a 12-foot jump shot from behind the basket.
Morgan rose up and contested the shot perfectly, making the already tough shot as uncomfortable as possible for Pincock.
Morgan’s defense was good enough that many in the crowd believed a third overtime was just seconds away, but that hope faded as the ball fell through the net.
The Wildcats would get one last shot with 1.5 seconds remaining, but the look missed the mark and the Diggers had completed the stunning comeback over the Wildcats.
Between shock, sadness, anger, and frustration, I think the Kellogg players and fans alike were confused by what they felt.
This wasn’t supposed to end this way.
It just didn’t (and still doesn’t) sit right with anyone who was in support of the purple and gold and it probably never will.
After a decade of coaching much of this team through AAU and high school, a tearful Jeff Nearing wasn’t afraid to express his sadness at the way it ended, but also how proud he was of a team that has truly been his for the past 10 years.
“The boys worked hard. Sometimes things just don’t go your way, that’s life. I’m proud of these boys, this team, they worked their butts off today,” Nearing said. “This is a special group of boys. If I had to pick between that trophy and just eight more minutes to coach these boys, I’d take the eight minutes, win or lose. They are that special.”
Jerome would finish with 16 points, capping off a marvelous tournament where he averaged 15 points per game for the Wildcats, meanwhile both Morgan and Mueller would finish with 14 points apiece.