After earning its first win of the season at Southeast, assistant coach Vance Lee took a team photo.
The Carroll boys basketball team lost three straight to start the season. The pieces didn't seem to fit. There wasn't enough size. Not enough experience, not enough shooting, not enough talent.
The win was important, but the players were confused by Lee.
"Why are we taking a photo?" they asked.
"Because it's hard to win," Lee said.
Three months and one day later, those same players took another team photo. This one had a trophy in it. Carroll beat Salina Central 43-41 in overtime in the Class 5A boys basketball championship game Saturday.
Sophomore Tanner Mans hit two free throws with 22.7 seconds left in overtime to give Carroll a two-point lead. Central coach Doug Finch called a timeout, his only of the overtime period.
The Mustangs still had a shot to win with a three-pointer, which would have been their eighth since halftime. On the inbounds pass, Mans got a hand to the ball. It ricocheted around, and Central gathered it on the floor.
Central tried to call a timeout he did not have. By rule, a technical foul was called, and Carroll senior Luke Evans went to the line with 6.5 seconds left. He hit both free throws, and after another foul, he hit another to clinch Carroll's first state championship in boys basketball.
The pieces fit. The Eagles got their size back. They gained experience. They found shooting. They had enough talent. They had enough "juice" -- Carroll's motto this season. But not right away.
After the win at Southeast, Carroll hosted East, a team that finished the season 8-13. The Eagles lost again, 57-46.
"Not again," they thought. And from Dec. 12 on, they mostly didn't.
Coach Mike Domnick went to work. He saw the skills each player brought to the table.
"My responsibility was to get them in an organized system, and to get them to play hard on defense," he said. "And that was the easy part."
Carsen Pracht became more of a spot-up shooter. Mans started going to the basket more. Gunner Lynch, who played on the junior varsity team for the first six games of the season, started focusing on defense and rebounding. And Evans, Carroll's only senior, became a leader.
After the East game, Carroll went 19-1. The only loss came at McPherson in the midseason tournament final. The Eagles were the No. 6 seed out of eight there and had to beat Derby and Lawrence Free State just to get to the final.
Carroll had a lead in the fourth quarter at McPherson, but "experience took over," Domnick said. Carroll still wasn't ready.
When Carroll came back to practice, there was a revitalized fire about them. They saw potential for what they could be in McPherson but didn't reach it.
About two months later in Topeka, it almost happened again.
Carroll shot 29.4 percent from the floor in the first half of the state title game. The Eagles hit only five buckets. It was their worst half of basketball this season.
Salina Central has been known to force teams into that spot. The Mustangs held 50 percent of their opponents to season lows coming into the Class 5A tournament. The good news was Central was shooting even worse.
The Mustangs shot 22.2 percent in the first half, and the score was 14-14 going into the locker room.
The Carroll players looked at one another at a crossroads. They chose positivity. Center Clay Cundiff, who missed the season's first 14 games, said it was basically 0-0, so they were confident coming out of halftime.
"We said 'That was one of the worst offensive halves we've play, and we're still tied with these guys,'" Evans said.
Coming out in the third quarter, shots started falling, but they did for Central, too. The Eagles couldn't get up by more than five.
"We're running low on juice," Evans said, but that feeling was familiar, too.
Carroll ripped through the second half of the City League schedule. The Eagles didn't lose, not to Southeast, not to Kapaun, not to league champion Heights. The machine hit a snag in the sub-state final.
Topeka West was the opponent, and Carroll jumped to a hot start. The Eagles led 21-6 at halftime. In the second half, West brought the heat, outscoring Carroll 40-28. Carroll just had to hold on with almost no juice in the tank.
West had the final shot and could have sent the game to overtime, but Carroll's defense fought off the comeback, and the Eagles qualified for state .
Defense was the winner for the state title. With 1:50 left in regulation, the score was tied at 35, and Central had the ball. The Mustangs milked the clock down to under 17.9 seconds and called a timeout.
Domnick put sophomore Luke Larkin on the floor. Trying to set up a play, Central passed the ball around the right side of the three-point arch but got sloppy. Harper Williams tried to pass to Mark Grammer, but Larkin jumped the pass and stole the ball. If he fouled, Salina Central would have gone to the free throw line with a chance to go ahead with less than 10 seconds left.
Larkin shouldn't have been on the floor. He wasn't expecting to earn valuable minutes on the varsity team this season, and Domnick wasn't prepared to give them to him, but injuries forced him into the rotation.
"It's amazing to watch the whole team come together and be the best team in Kansas," Larkin said.
Domnick said in a season full of moments, Larkin's steal will be the moment he remembers most from his first championship-winning team.
Carroll put together a phenomenal run to close the season, and it continued at the Kansas Expocentre in Topeka. Despite winning 13 straight, the Eagles entered as the No. 4 seed, had to beat Schlagle and Mill Valley, a team that upset No. 1 Eisenhower in the first round and had the tournament's most prolific scorer.
Winning got easier for the Eagles as the year wore on. They didn't take team photos after every victory, and they certainly didn't celebrate with sparking grape juice as they did Saturday in the locker room.
They were tested down the stretch but had fun with each challenge, joking with each other before the game.
On the other side of the arena, Central was locked in. Few players sat next to one another, rather loosely strung together in section 105. All had headphones on. Few spoke.
That made making history and taking that final team photo even sweeter, Evans said.
"This team -- it's just a bunch of best friends playing basketball together," he said. "When we're down, we pick each other up, and that's what has carried us throughout the season."