Incredible. Amazing. Unbelievable.
Those were just a few of the adjectives flying around Cougar Palace on Saturday night after the Alliance boys basketball team posted an electrifying and heart-pounding 77-76 win over Gering in double overtime in the first round of the Class B, District 6 Tournament.
The victory was certainly sweet for Alliance, which not only earned a trip to Monday’s semifinal-round contest against top-seeded Scottsbluff but also ended a five-game losing streak. The win was just Alliance’s ninth victory of the season, and it was their first win against a Class B opponent.
“We’ve gone through a lot of adversity this whole year. We hadn’t won a Class B game this whole year, so we had to come out with everything we had,” Alliance senior Isaac Burnham said. “That’s what we did. We played our hearts out.”
Burnham, a three-year starter who might have played the best game of his impressive career, erupted for a game-high 32 points. His biggest shot, which Bulldog fans won’t soon forget, came at the end of the second overtime, when he drove down the lane and fired in the game-winning basket with about 3 seconds to play.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a game like this,” Burnham said.
Burnham’s final shot capped a wild and memorable finish. There were times when Alliance appeared to be in control of the game, only to watch as Gering put together an incredible rally. The reverse was true, too, as Gering at times appeared to be in position to pull out a win, only to see Alliance post a remarkable comeback.
“It’s pretty hard to put this game into words,” Alliance coach Michael Baker said. “I’m just so proud of our kids’ character. We had to deal with a lot of adversity. Our season hasn’t gone like we wanted, but these kids are great — they’re resilient. They persevered through difficulties throughout this season and throughout this game. It just comes down to making plays, and our guys trusted each other to make the plays.”
The drama — and tension — really got rolling toward the end of regulation, when four straight free throws by Burnham gave Alliance what looked like a comfortable 53-46 advantage with just 1:10 to play.
Gering, though, pieced together a dramatic comeback that was aided by a basket by Grant Olsson and two Joses Palomo 3-pointers, the second of which pulled Gering to within 55-53 with 30 seconds left.
On its ensuing possession, Alliance threw the ball out of bounds with 17.5 seconds to go, giving Gering a chance to either tie or win the game. Olsson sent the Gering crowd into a frenzy when he swished a jumper as time expired, sending the game into overtime.
In the first extra period, back-to-back 3-pointers by Zac Bibb vaulted Gering into a 61-57 lead with 1:48 left. But just like Gering had done at the end of regulation, Alliance put together an impressive comeback of its own. Ryan Romick hit a jumper with 1:36 left to pull Alliance within 61-59, and then Burnham nailed two free throws with 51 seconds remaining to even the score.
Neither team managed to score the rest of the first overtime. With the clock winding down, Gering missed a layup, and then Alliance misfired on a shot with about 3 seconds left, sending the game into another overtime period.
The teams traded leads a handful of times before Gering took a 76-72 advantage on a free throw by Bibb with 22.4 seconds to go. Alliance’s Gaige Lehl made a free throw with 21.9 seconds left, and then after a Gering turnover, Alliance pulled within 76-75 on a driving score by Jordan Mills with 15.2 seconds left. Mills, who hit a whopping eight 3-pointers in the game, finished with 26 points.
Gering committed a turnover as it brought the ball upcourt with 12.3 seconds left, and Alliance immediately made plans for its final shot attempt. With the finals seconds ticking away, Burnham showed no hesitation as he dribbled toward the basket from the top of the key and then sank his game-winning shot with about 4 seconds to play. Gering then turned the ball over on its final possession, allowing Alliance to escape with its most thrilling victory of the season.
“We just had to fight our hardest throughout the whole game,” Burnham said. “Each overtime we just had to keep getting tougher and tougher.”
Although Alliance found itself in some tough spots late in the game, Baker never doubted his team’s ability to stay tough both mentally and physically.
“I’ve always liked these guys’ demeanor,” Baker said. “They’re loose and they’re calm, so they really didn’t get rattled. Our guys showed a lot of poise to make the plays offensively and defensively late against a good Gering team.”
To be sure, Gering displayed similar poise, passion and perseverance late in the game. That’s why Gering’s players, assistant coach Steve Land said, have every reason to hold their heads up high.
“It looked real bleak for us toward the end of regulation, but we came back and really gutted it out and hit some big-time shots,” Land said. “It’s a credit to our guys. They really buckled down and forced overtime. Our kids haven’t quit all year, and they didn’t quit tonight.”
Land praised the contributions of Gering’s seniors — Bibb, Walker Britsch and Austin Ferguson — who played a huge part in Gering being able to record a number of big wins this season and finish with a record of 13-10.
“It’s a tough, tough loss for us, but we’re really proud of our seniors,” Land said. “We’re really proud of what they’ve done for our program.”
Bibb led Gering in scoring Saturday with 19 points, and Palomo added 17. Olsson tallied 14 points, and Austin Hoffman pitched in 12. Gering had lots of success from beyond the 3-point arc. Palomo had a team-best five 3-pointers, and Hoffman and Bibb each connected on four treys.
Alliance (9-13), the fifth seed in the five-team B-6 district tournament, will quickly turn its attention to Monday’s semifinal-round showdown against No. 1 Scottsbluff. Tip off is set for 6 p.m. at Cougar Palace.
In Monday’s other semifinal game, third-seeded Sidney will take on second-seeded McCook at 7:30 p.m. at WNCC. The championship game is slated for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at WNCC.
Gering...................13 9 17 16 6 15—76
Alliance...............17 12 12 14 6 16—77
Joses Palomo 17, Walker Britsch 4, Christian Groskopf 2, Austin Hoffman 12, Zac Bibb 19, Austin Ferguson 8, Grant Olsson 14.
Ryan Romick 6, Isaac Burnham 32, Gaige Lehl 7, Joshua Matulka 4, Jordan Mills 26, Sage DuBray 2.