Tuesday’s semifinal matchup against seventh-seeded Heart River and third-seeded Trinity was projected to be a battle. With seventh-seeded Heart River playing its best basketball of the season, including upsetting second-seeded Beulah on Monday, the matchup was expected to go down to the wire.
It did, with the game coming down to the Cougars leading the Titans 40-38 and the Titans having to throw up a prayer at half court as time expired.
The prayer was answered with an excruciating outcome for the Titans as the ball bounced off the rim and tipped over the side of the basket, giving the Cougars their second consecutive upset victory and a slot in the Class B Region 7 championship on Thursday.
But instead of Heart River enjoying a victory after knocking off its second top-seeded opponent in back-to-back nights and making its way into the regional championship, the Cougars left the Trinity gymnasium on a more sour than sweet note with the team’s star senior athlete and captain Caylee Wilke in crutches and tears after suffering an injury in the closing seconds of regulation.
“I’m just really mixed with a lot of emotion right now,” Cougars Head Coach Ronnie Stewart said following the game. “We came into this building in January and lost a close one, and since then we’ve been playing some great basketball."
Stewart added, “Early on some things weren’t going our way, but we believed in it; we talked to these girls about it all the time. Everything had to improve. From our coaching, down to our bench play, the energy on the bench, and it did. Openly, it’s because of our seniors, and our main one Caylee Wilke."
Wilke played a solid role in the Cougars’ victory, ending as the team’s leading scorer with 14 points, five rebounds, two assists and three steals in just over 30 minutes of playing time. Meg Silbernagel was the team’s second-leading scorer with seven points.
Trinity held the edge in the scoring percentage against Heart River, hitting on 40% of its overall shots and nearly 67% from the free throw line, compared to the Cougars, which were at a mere 33%. But the 3-point ball played more to the Cougars' side, with the team hitting 33% of its deep balls compared to Trinity hitting 29%.
Heart River also tallied 11 second-chance points compared to Trinity’s five and held a defensive rebounding percentage of 80% compared to Trinity’s nearly 64%.
With the victory, the Cougars extend their longest win streak of the season to six.
“These girls have just all bought in together and that makes it six games in a row now, so we knew there’s the preseason, or the games that are non-region, there’s the regular-season games, and then we have our postseason. The postseason is the only one that matters right now. That’s the ones that they’re showing up for, and it’s just been a lot of fun,” Stewart said.
While the Cougars put everything they had into the semifinal game, so did the Trinity Titans, with the hopes of having their final game taking place on Thursday for the regional championship. Sadly, a series of highs and lows played a major impact in the overall outcome.
Despite being labeled the guests on the scoreboard, the Titans made great use of their home court by taking a 15-10 lead into the second quarter. However, under the leadership of Wilke, the Cougars bounced back in the second to outscore Trinity 17-4 to take a 27-19 score into the halftime break. With their energy seemingly fully restored, the Titans outscored Heart River 15-7 in the third to tie the game at 34 going into the final quarter.
With the fourth quarter being up in the air, both teams played defense to the best of their ability, resulting in an extremely low-scoring fourth quarter.
Eventually, with the score tied at 38 and nearly just under a minute to play, the Cougars took the lead with a bucket inside the paint.
After some failed attempts of the Titans attempting to score the tying basket and the Cougars failing to extend the lead, it was the Titans that had the ball with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game. With the ball being put in play, Wilke’s attempts at earning the possible game-ending turnover were nearly successful as the ball was knocked loose and rolled near half court.
With the ball nearly out of bounds, and in a battle with Titans junior Kali Kubas to obtain possession of the basketball, Wilke dove for the ball and landed with a thud with Kali Kubas right behind. Unable to stand and clenching her leg, Wilke was then carried off the court and placed on the bench, where she was attended to by athletic trainers.
With less than 10 seconds remaining, the Cougars’ strong, tight-knit defense forced the Titans to lose possession of the basketball — the Cougars were nearly given the ball based on an over-and-back violation. However, Kali Kubas saved the ball just in time to heave a half-court jumper with less than three seconds remaining in the contest.
As fate would have it, the final buzzer sounded just as the ball bounced off the rim and onto the hardwood court.
For a brief moment, the Cougars screamed and celebrated on the court, with the fans and student section roaring with excitement with the realization that the team had officially made its way into the regional championship. Sadly, the happy vibes promptly faded as the team quickly returned to the bench in support for their injured teammate.
For Trinity, the loss officially marked the end of the line for Titans basketball for seniors Abbey Kubas, Kara Wanner, and Asia and Amaya Willer.
Despite being emotionally distraught with the loss, Titans athletes, including some of the Titans seniors, made their way to the Heart River bench to console Wilke and congratulate the Cougars on a well-earned victory before making their way to the Trinity locker room.
Titans Head Coach Trevor Ernst touched on his team’s performance following the conclusion of regulation.
“Just proud of the girls for fighting until the end,” Ernst said. “It was just hard to find our feet offensively and we struggled to execute on a few things, but the girls fought hard. We gave ourselves a chance at the end and just fell a little short.”
Ernst gave credit to Heart River’s consistent usage of fresh defense to stagger the Titans’ offensive capabilities, particularly in the fourth quarter.
“They just did a good job of switching up defenses, and we had a little bit of a challenge of getting in and executing our stuff that we wanted to run on each of the defenses,” Ernst said. “Got to hand it to them, they wanted to win too. They worked extremely hard too. It made for a great game, and we just came out on the wrong end of it.”
Along with reflecting on the loss came time to reflect on the Titans’ four key seniors, who played a solid role in helping the team acquire a season-ending record of 13-9, making the Titans one of the top teams in Class B Region 7.
“I really can’t say enough good things about them,” Ernst said. “Great leaders, great examples of what it means to be a Trinity Titan, and just want to thank them for showing their leadership throughout the years and all the years that they’ve been at Trinity. They’ve helped show everyone why we have a successful team and good culture here, and they’re good examples of that.”
Ernst added, “I think they’ll be remembered as one of the better classes when you look at their entire sports careers.”
As for Heart River, the Cougars will be looking for the trifecta of upsets with eliminating the third and second seeded teams in the regional tournament under its belt. The team will also have a chance at redemption against Hettinger-Scranton. They previously lost to the Night Hawks by 11 earlier this month, with the Cougars having a chance at victory until the Night Hawks went on one final run to seal the Cougars’ fate.
“With (Hettinger-Scranton) playing one of their best games of the year, we still had it within grasp,” Stewart said. “We knew if we had another chance at them we’d look at putting a little bit more pressure on them and making an interesting ballgame out of it.”
The Class B Region 7 championship is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6 p.m.
Trinity: 15 4 15 4 - 38
Heart River: 10 17 7 6 - 40
Trinity: Kara Wanner 14, Kali Kubas 0, Asia Willer 0, Amaya Willer 5, Hope Fath DNP, Jersey Erie DNP, Ava Jahner 2, McKenna Ernst 0, Katherine Schneider DNP, Olivia Kessel DNP, Morgan Koffler DNP, Ady Karsky DNP, Delaney Deschamp DNP, Abbey Kubas 17, Grace Veverka DNP.
Heart River: Mackenzee Schneider DNP, Morgan Forrest DNP, Jamie Buckman DNP, Dallas Olson DNP, Sage Froehlich 6, Gabbie Buckman DNP, Joudan Buckman 2, Caylee Wilke 14, Abby Talkington 2, Meg Silbernagel 7, Lelani Privratsky 5, Jersey Filkowski 4.