No matter how many state basketball tournament bids Heights coach Joe Auer and his teams earn during his career, none will ever be like Friday.
As the host Falcons and Kapaun Mount Carmel lined up for postgame handshakes after Heights’ 41-40 victory in the Class 5A boys sub-state finals, Auer turned his back on the scene.
Among those heading his way was his son, Nick, a Kapaun senior whose high school career had just ended. Crusaders coach John Cherne and his son, Atir, who attempted the contested floater in the final seconds that determined both teams’ fate, also approached.
It was a scenario that made Joe Auer’s stomach churn and cost him sleep throughout the week.
“I was a little emotional at the end,” said Auer, who will take the Falcons to Topeka next week for the 5A tournament after his junior guard, Semaj Hervey, hit two game-winning free throws with nine seconds remaining.
“Most of that is because you’re watching your child – you put a ball in his hands – and that’s it. He’s done. It hadn’t really hit me that that was what just happened.”
Heights (18-4), winners of four consecutive 6A titles from 2009-12 and 5A newcomers this season, will make its sixth state appearance in seven years. The Falcons did it the hard way, rallying to take down their City League foes for the third time in 49 days.
“It’s hard to beat the same team three times in a season,” said Hervey, who scored 10 of his game-high 16 points in the second half, when offense was an extinct commodity. “They were hungry.”
Kapaun (11-11), the 5A champion in 2012 and fourth-place finishers a year ago, scored 35 and 36 points in regular-season losses to Heights. But with Cherne and backcourt mate Thomas O’Connor firing on all cylinders early, the Crusaders led 13-3 less than 2 1/2 minutes into the game.
The Crusaders were equally prepared defensively, throwing a box-and-one at the Falcons with Cherne latched on to Heights senior Ealy Bell. Hervey and reserve Davon Gill kept the Falcons afloat, combining for 13 first-half points, but Kapaun still led 28-22 at the break.
“It was a defensive masterpiece,” Auer said. “There’s a reason that people struggle to score in this game, and that’s because, defensively, both teams are so locked in.”
Auer supplied the next pivotal move, greeting Kapaun with an extended 1-3-1 zone in the third quarter. The defense had a noticeable effect on the Crusaders’ aggressiveness. They turned the ball over five times and missed all four of their shots in the quarter, each from three-point range.
Kapaun went scoreless in the third quarter and for almost half of the fourth as Heights charged to a 33-28 lead.
“The third quarter hurt us,” John Cherne said. “They changed to that 1-3-1 zone, and I failed the team on that. We didn’t score a bucket, and I take the blame for that.”
But Heights wasn’t in the clear. The Falcons turned the ball over four times in the final quarter, and Kapaun regained the lead at 38-37 on Atir Cherne’s two free throws with 35 seconds to play.
That started a run of clutch free-throw shooting by both teams. Heights’ Jordan Wilbeck made two, and Cherne, who led Kapaun with 15 points, followed with two with 20 seconds to play.
Hervey, who was fouled on a drive, sank the game-winning points from the line, then shadowed Cherne up the court in the final seconds until the Kapaun guard launched a shot from the left wing that caromed off the rim and through the hands of would-be rebounders as the buzzer sounded.
After the game, when Joe Auer turned to face his son, tears welled in his eyes. He embraced Nick Auer for several seconds. When they let go, both were crying.
“I told my team after the game, ‘I’m hurting,’ ” Joe Auer said. “I don’t know which side … the hurting dad side is probably dominating right now.”