FINAL FOUR NOTEBOOK: Wheetley, Advance boys basketball players reflect on legacy
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The man who tasked himself with returning a rich tradition to Advance boys basketball stuttered. He stopped. He caught his breath and stared at the table in front of him.
Minutes following a so-close-but-not-quite-there loss to Walnut Grove, 65-62, in Saturday's MSHSAA Class 1 championship, Hornets coach Bubba Wheetley couldn't get the words out.
"I told them," he said before stopping again, fighting back tears.
"They're great. I love all these kids. I told them I'll be there for them when they get out of school. They know I will be. They gave it their all. They laid it out there. It's all you can ask as a coach."
There were plenty of moments on Saturday when it looked like the Hornets were going to cement their legacy in the grandest of fashions, lifting a title trophy for the first time in four decades -- for the first time since the era in which Wheetley himself pulled on an Advance uniform.
It was not to be, though, as Walnut Grove's Logan Thomazin inserted the daggers in the waning minutes.
Instead, the Advance seniors walked off the floor for a final time toting a resume that included state runner-up, a third-place finish, four district titles and countless other trophies.
Even if things didn't end the way Preston Wuebker, Dawson Mayo and Brendan Crader wanted them to, it was still an impressive run. The Hornets are 90-33 in the last four years, including 51-13 in the last two years, when the current core made its most valuable contributions.
For Crader, the end had an added layer of frustration, after injuring his ankle when he slipped on the floor late in the second half. He was unable to play the rest of the way.
"It sucks," Crader said. "I mean Carson (Miles) did a good job stepping up, though. He hit a couple really big shots. Proud of him. He plays really good, and he's got a whole other season (left).
"It just kind of sucks. We had it. It just slipped [away]."
On Saturday, that feeling overwhelmed all the other accomplishments.
The final possession
Coming in to state, Wheetley had praised Wuebker as being a player who was not afraid to take the big shot. That played out again Saturday when the senior guard splashed in a 3 with 42 seconds left to tie the game at 62-all.
With 24 seconds remaining and the Hornets trailing by two, it was Wuebker -- a 39.2-percent 3-point shooter -- again putting up a shot from outside the arc.
That shot rattled in and out of the rim, but when Walnut Grove missed the front end of a 1-and-1 at the other end, Advance had possession of the ball and 16 seconds left to get one final look at the basket and either tie or win the game.
With the Hornets huddling, Wuebker seemed the most likely Hornet to take the big shot. Or Armani Vermillion, the team's leading scorer. Or even a post look for Dawson Mayo, if Advance wanted a high-percentage look that would force overtime.
But that's not where it ended up.
As Vermillion quietly drifted to the short corner, Mayo inbounded the ball to Wuebker at the half-court line, and Michael Hood, another 3-point threat, stood at the top-left wing. Wuebker shimmied at the top of the arc, but couldn't shake Walnut Grove's Ryan Keith loose, so he dumped the ball to Mayo in the high post, where the center quickly pushed the ball back out to Wuebker.
Dribbling before taking a step to his right, Wuebker saw his best option as his closest one, tossing the ball to the top-right wing for Miles, a junior who has shown the ability to score both inside and out, but seemingly the team's fifth option.
With 5 seconds remaining on the clock, Miles caught the ball and put it up, watching the 3 clang off the front of the rim before the Tigers' Logan Thomazin hauled in the rebound, dribbled out and was fouled with 0.4 seconds on the clock.
"I was wanting to run Armani inside and try to get him the ball because he can finish in there so well," Wheetley said, "and I wanted everyone else outside and whoever got the best open look, you can take it.
"Armani didn't quite get open inside, but Carson was wide open. He just didn't hit the shot."
With Walnut Grove looking to win the game, its defense won the possession.
"You know, late, we had the lead, so we wanted to know where [Vermillion] was. And he was running the short corner," Walnut Grove coach Darin Meinders said. "We were going to live with someone else beating us. We didn't want him to beat us."
The Tigers executed, and there was nothing left for the Hornets to do but accept defeat.
"I really didn't say anything," Wheetley said. "I didn't say anything. I know Preston was taking it pretty hard. I just patted him on the back and said, 'You're fine.' Hey, they played their hearts out. We just got beat."
Getting physical (and mental)
The physicality of the Oran boys basketball team stood out all week at the Show-Me Showdown. Against Sacred Heart in the semifinal, it frustrated the Gremlins and played a large role in allowing the Eagles to rally.
In Saturday's Class 2 championship against Crane, it seemed to have a similar effect.
Pirates coach Craig Campbell said his team beefed up its schedule this year to learn how to deal with physical teams, but he also admitted it caused problems in the title contest.
"It's one of the things we've kind of struggled with -- any time we've faced a team that physical, we've struggled," Campbell said. "They pushed us around, and that was one of my concerns -- that they were all physical. And if we didn't match that, we'd have some issues. I feel like, especially in the third quarter, that showed."
But when things went from physical to crossing the line, it was the mental part of the game that saw Oran prevail.
Seconds after flying to the rim -- and the floor -- and completing a three-point play for Crane, Pirate standout Dalton Hayes took his frenetic energy too far.
With Oran in possession, Hayes put a body check on Jacob Shoemaker away from the ball -- a hit the Eagle sophomore said he never saw coming -- to send Shoemaker crashing into the bench. On top of being whistled for the foul, Hayes was handed a technical foul, fouling him out of the game and giving Oran four free throws plus possession.
Just 11 seconds later, teammate Wyatt Vaught was hit with another technical, and again the Eagles got four free throws and possession, which they then turned into another foul and two converted free throws.
The Eagles only hit six of the 10 free throws during that stretch, but it was still a 6-0 swing in the span of 13 seconds, pushing the gap from two possessions to 11 points.
And the mental toll may have been just as large, as it left Crane needing to reset and regain its cool.
"It hurt us. It did," Campbell said. "It definitely swung the momentum back in their direction ... and if those had happened, who knows, we might have been able to (come back)."
Oran, meanwhile, never lost its composure in what proved to be a decisive moment.
"I think the biggest thing, like the coaches have taught us since freshman year, just be calm and don't retaliate if someone does something," Oran senior Max Priggel said. "Don't retaliate back because usually the guy that gets caught is the second guy. He's always taught us to be calm and whatever they do just let it go and play the game."
Eagles' young core
While the Oran boys celebrated their first ever state title, the Oran girls wrapped up their campaign -- an impressive one despite ending on a losing note -- on Friday with a 49-41 loss to Scotland County in the Class 2 girls third-place game.
The trip to state -- the first ever for the ladies -- was a frustrating and heartbreaking one for the Eagles but also one they are poised to reap benefits from for years.
Arguably the youngest team in Columbia this week, Oran has just one senior on the roster -- Brianna Stause -- and started four sophomores or freshmen. Mackenzie Graviett, a contributor off the bench, is the only junior on the team.
So when Oran girls coach Ethan Evans talked about the trip being a learning experience, it was not just lip service, but a genuine sentiment.
"I just hope we have learned what it takes to succeed at this level here," Evans said. "We've talked about going to the next level. I've talked to you about that before, and we took that next step after districts and then another step after that. Seeing what it takes to win at this state level, it's all about defense."
After being held to 41 points by Scotland County after managing just 46 in the semifinal loss to Adrian, it became clear that the Eagles weren't going to be able to outscore teams at that level. Dismal shooting saw Oran go 28 of 110 (25.5 percent) from the field in the two games.
So the lesson learned won't be tough to discern.
"Defense and rebounding is what wins championships and brings it home," Evans said. "I hope we soak that in and also get that other year of experience and not to get that deer-in-the-headlight look whenever we step out here on the floor again hopefully."