With their backs against the wall, defending state champion Lowry upped its defensive intensity and outscored Sparks 8-1 over the last 1:24 to secure a spot at the state tournament with a 52-48 victory in a Division I-A Northern Region semifinal Friday night.
Sparks wanted to face Lowry in the playoffs because the Railroaders were a much different and improved ball club from when the Buckaroos dismantled Sparks 53-30 in mid-December. Lowry witnessed firsthand how much Sparks has improved.
“We left on December 15th knowing we could beat them,” Sparks boys basketball coach Dan Schreiber said. “I told them to leave it on the floor tonight. I’m real proud of these kids. They left everything they had. Lowry is the defending state champion and didn’t graduate anyone. There’s nothing to be sad about. They had a fantastic season.”
The Railroaders took a 35-33 lead on a Mike Albior 3-pointer with 7:33 to play, and then they tried their hardest to not relinquish that lead.
Lowry was able to tie it at 35-35, but Sparks senior Keiffer Putman dropped in a layup and then followed that up with a stop-and-pop 3-pointer from way downtown, forging Sparks into a 40-35 advantage with 5:28 left.
The Buckaroos closed the gap to four points, 42-38, with 4:44 remaining.
Sparks came back down the floor looking to keep control of the game. D.J. Devine missed a layup, but he made a hustle play where he dove for the loose rebound and tapped it back outside. The ball swung around to Putman, who launched a trey and nailed it for 45-38 lead halfway through the fourth.
That’s when Lowry began picking up the pressure.
“We got real cavalier with the ball. It wasn’t necessarily the trap. We just didn’t keep the ball close to our body,” Schreiber said.
With 3:37 on the clock, Josh Shaver got a putback to go and then swiped a steal and went coast-to-coast, cutting the deficit to 45-42 at the 2:42 mark of the fourth quarter.
Sparks came up empty again on offense, but lucked out when Lowry missed the front end of a one-and-one situation. However, the Railroaders were called for a travel, giving the ball back to the Bucks.
Lowry took advantage, working the ball down low to Jesse Studebaker, who brought the Buckaroos to within one, 45-44.
Devine got two shooter’s rolls during a trip to the charity stripe, extending the Rail City school’s cushion to 47-44 with 1:36 remaining.
Lowry tied up the game in an unexpected manner. After Josh Watterson was fouled on a three-point attempt, he only made the first foul shot. On the second miss, Studebaker was there for the rebound and putback, knotting the game at 47-47.
With 43 seconds left, Devine was fouled on an offensive rebound. He missed the first and made the second, pushing Sparks ahead for the last time, 48-47.
On the ensuing trip up the floor, Studebaker was fouled while catching a pass away from the basket. He proceeded to make both free throws, giving Lowry the lead for good.
The Maroon and Gold turned the ball over with 18 seconds left, and then let 10 more seconds come off the clock before fouling.
Tytus Millikan left the door open by only making one free throw. But Watterson intercepted a crosscourt pass and was fouled with 3.2 seconds to go. Sparks’ hopes were kept alive when Watterson missed his first attempt. He made the second, forcing the Railroaders to need a 3-pointer to tie.
Sparks called timeout to set up a play in order to free up a shooter. Instead, Sparks turned the ball over due to a five-second call.
Studebaker sealed the victory with a free throw.
“I guess it wasn’t meant to win,” Schreiber said. “I would say about 80 percent of the game we had the lead. We found ourselves with our back against the wall and not much time left on the clock.”
Lowry didn’t trail for over a quarter to start the game after Watterson knocked down a trey after missing from the elbow earlier in the opening possession.
The Buckaroos led 5-0 a minute and a half into the game after Studebaker got a putback to go.
Albior put Sparks on the board with a 3-pointer 21 seconds later.
The two teams traded buckets four times before Studebaker drained a three-ball, extending Lowry’s lead back up to five, 12-7.
The first quarter had very few stoppages of play. The first foul wasn’t called until the 1:17 mark and Bobby Brown made one free throw for the Maroon and Gold.
A putback by Watterson pushed Lowry in front by a game-high six-point margin, 14-8.
Sparks senior Geo Vasquez came off the bench and knocked down a 3-pointer from the corner with 11 seconds on the first-quarter clock, cutting the lead in half, 14-11.
The Railroaders scored the first basket of the second quarter, making it a 14-13 game.
Lowry answered right back with a two, but Putman knotted the score at 16-16 with a 3-pointer. Putman followed that up with a deep bomb from behind the arc, handing Sparks its first lead of the game, 19-16, with 3:41 to go before halftime.
After a Buckaroos free throw, Putman hit a fade away, increasing the Railroaders’ edge to 21-17.
In the final two minutes of the first half, Studebaker got two buckets to go off steals in the backcourt. The second layup came with 5 seconds remaining in the first half and cut Sparks’ halftime lead down to 23-21.
While there was only one foul called in the first seven minutes of the first quarter, there were 13 fouls called before 6:30 had ticked off the third-quarter clock.
Sparks was in the bonus situation with 1:38 left in the third, but Isaiah Campbell missed the front end of a one-and-one. He made amends later, knocking down a 3-pointer from the corner to break the tie and give Sparks a 32-29 advantage.
However, Lowry scored the last bucket of the third quarter and the first of the fourth to claim a 33-32 lead.
That was the Winnemucca school’s final edge until the last 33 seconds of the game.
Studebaker led all scorers with 23 points. Watterson added 15.
Putman paced the Railroaders with 21 points, including four 3-pointers. Albior chipped in 10.
Sparks finishes out the season with a 19-9 record after having its 13-game winning streak snapped. No. 2 seed Lowry will play in the regional championship against top-seeded Elko today at 2 p.m.