With the score knotted at 39 and just 11.8 seconds left on the clock, Star Valley called a timeout and prepared to take the game’s final shot.
Powell’s defense was playing for overtime.
Battleson, a Star Valley senior, received the inbounds and dribbled to the top of the key, where he let a few precious seconds run off. He relinquished the ball for only a moment, passing to the left wing and faking like he was going to cut inside before flashing back out to the 3-point line to get the ball again. Battleson then took one dribble, stepped through a Panthers double team and banked in an underhand scoop shot that sent half of the fans inside the Casper Events Center into a frenzy, and the other half into a stunned silence.
“I was more numb than anything,” said Panthers head coach Mike Heny about the game’s final play. “Sometimes games come down to one possession. Sometimes it bounces your way and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Heny said his defense was prepared and played well during that final possession, and that the two-time all-state player just made a good, if somewhat lucky, play.
“We thought it was going to be Battleson driving…that’s exactly what they drew up,” Heny said. “The kids played good defense on him. He didn’t get all the way to the basket, he had to go up and under a couple defenders.”
There were times Saturday when it looked like a meaningful play within the game’s final minutes was unlikely.
Slow starts by the Panthers in each half threatened to turn this game into a one-sided affair but Powell refused to simply hand the game to the Braves.
“You got competitors on your team and you just find a way to get back in it and we did,” Heny said.
The Panthers played from behind for 31 of the game’s 32 minutes and had trailed by as many as nine in the fourth quarter before a late rally gave them their first lead with just 1:02 left in the game.
Threes by senior Marshall McArthur and sophomore Kalei Smith closed the gap and Powell finally went ahead on junior Hayden Cragoe’s put back.
“At the end of the day you want to give yourself and the kids the best shot to win and I thought we did that,” Heny said.
Heny said that while it’s easy to second guess decisions after a loss, there’s not much about the game he wishes he could change.
“I don’t know if there’s anything we could have done a lot different in that game,” he said. “I coached to win it the whole way and the guys on the floor had been our main guys the whole year and I stuck with that all the way to the end.”
After losing to Star Valley twice in the regular season, the Panthers beat the Braves handily in the 3A West regional championship game. And while Heny said he doesn’t ever appreciate second place, he’s proud of his team for proving they are one of the state’s elite teams.
“I think the two best teams in the state were playing Saturday night,” he said. “To me, if we would have got beat by 15 everybody would have said, ‘well, last week was a fluke.’”
“It’s better for me, as a competitor, to lose the way we did,” Heny said. “It came down to one possession.”
Smith led all scorers with 17 points, and also had three rebounds, three steals and two blocks.
Marshall McArthur had a double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. He also had one steal and one block.
Powell’s journey to the finals went through the east’s Newcastle Dogies and cross-county rivals Cody Broncs.
The Panthers came out slow and a little tight in Thursday’s opener against Newcastle, the east’s fourth seed that was only 3-11 in the eastern conference. Powell was tied with the Dogies 23-23 at half before outscoring them 27-11 in the second half for the 50-34 victory.
Smith led the Panthers with 19 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and three blocks. McArthur had 14 points, six rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block.
Friday’s semifinal against Cody was played at Casper College’s Thunderbird gym.
Powell opened with more energy against the Broncs and ran out to a 13-3 lead early in the second quarter and went into half with a 24-14 lead. But Cody started to come back with vicious defensive play in the third and a string of Panther turnovers led to Cody taking a momentary 35-33 lead midway through the fourth.
Heny said he knew the Panthers would have to overcome Cody’s defense in order to make it to the finals.
“That was my concern with playing them. Could we handle their pressure playing a third time?” Heny said. “For that six, seven minute stretch in that semifinal they were able to completely take us out of everything.”
Powell’s offense picked it up from there and quickly took the lead away from Cody once and for all. Smith drove to the rim, and netted the Panthers two points plus the foul for the three-point play, which put Powell up 36-35.
Powell was up five and in the double-bonus with only one minute left to play, making a Broncs comeback unlikely. But Smith sealed the deal when a Panthers steal led to a breakaway one-hand jam and an eruption of sound from the Powell faithful.
Powell won 52-42, and was guaranteed no worse than a second-place finish.
McArthur had 13 points, four rebounds, five steals and two blocks. Cragoe had 10 points, five rebounds and two assists. Smith had 13 points, a rebound and a steal. Sophomore Carter Baxter added seven points and a team-high seven rebounds.
“I feel as good about this season as any I’ve ever been a part of,” Heny said.
Heny said his seniors were invaluable in leading a relatively young team this season.
Justin Lynn, Marshall McArthur and Vince Sleep were the only seniors on the Panthers.
“Justin played his rear end off for us and so did Vince,” Heny said.
But it was McArthur who set the example for underclassmen.
“His leadership this year proved to be significant,” Heny said. “He had spent so much time pouring everything into the program. He was our senior season that was with us at all the team camps this summer.”
Heny said that following the championship game, Star Valley’s athletic director and many Star Valley parents told him how they respect how the Powell basketball program is run.
“There was a lot of mutual respect after the game about how our kids go about their business and the community should be proud of all our kids and how we represented ourselves this year,” he said.