ZEPHYR COVE - Austin Neil sent the ball flying with Whittell's hopes attached as the final buzzer sounded. For a second, silence... then net. The score ticked in Whittell's favor.
The Warriors showed just how far they've come under new head coach Phil Bryant with a 62-60 win over undefeated Rite of Passage on Tuesday. Sure, it's just an early-season crossover win, but defeating ROP is a huge testament to the program Bryant is building.
There was disbelief etched on some faces as several ROP players sunk to their knees. Bryant was not among the surprised.
"You've got to always believe. If you don't believe then that's it," said Bryant, whose Warriors improved to 7-1 overall. "I believed as a coach."
Believing is easier said than done against a team like ROP. The guys are bigger, more athletic, and they entered the game undefeated.
"We know they're better athletes. We acknowledge that so we have to play in the structure of what we practice," Bryant said. "The game is played on the court, not ahead of time based on where the school is coming from. It's about not giving in mentally to anybody."
And the Warriors didn't.
Neil proved that when he busted up the 60-60 game at the buzzer. The Warriors proved it as a team in the fourth quarter with back-to-back steals and a 21-point performance.
ROP had built an early lead off a sluggish Whittell first half. --
Other than a huge 3-pointer from freshman Palmer Chaplin, the Warriors shot 2-for-14 with nine turnovers in the first quarter.
Despite the slow start, ROP never fully capitalized. Whittell lurked in the rearview mirror.
Neil started eating at the gap in the second when he found his shot. The senior put up 10 to keep Whittell in the game.
Derek Heldt-Werle added crucial free throw points to cut ROP's lead to seven, and the Warriors pulled together in the second half to quietly inch closer.
Cody Wyatt rebounded inside, while Garrett Bronken and Palmer Chaplin ran the floor.
"The casual fan may not notice this, but the guys are playing their role," Bryant said. "Not everyone on the floor is going to be a scorer or a rebounder or a defender."
Together, the Warriors made some adjustments.
Normally a pressing team, the Warriors jammed it back inside to combat ROP's athleticism. Consecutive steals from Bryce Bronken and Chaplin with less than two minutes on the clock kept the Warriors alive.
ROP had a chance to close it down from the free throw line with 24 seconds to go, but a missed shot left the door open.
Neil led the Warriors right on through. He came away with 30 points and a game-winning shot that high-school dreams are made of.
"It's huge for us because they were undefeated, and that was one thing, but we haven't beat a team with that kind of athleticism in the six wins we've had to this point," Bryant said. "I'm really proud of them. I've been doing this a long time, and in the first year here, I've become a Whittell guy with the way the kids have been."
Bryant wasn't the only one impressed with his team's upset win. First-year Incline head coach Tim Kelly was pleasantly surprised to hear about the outcome, as he once played high school club basketball for Bryant, and still looks up to the coach to this day.
"He was one of my mentors," Kelly said. "He's phenomenal. It's impossible for them (the Warriors) not to be better with him. Phil is a genius. He's such a great basketball coach. I truly believe he's one of the greatest coaches in the country."
Bryant's Warriors are now 7-1 and will host Smith Valley on Jan. 4 at 3:30 p.m.
Whittell boys 62, ROP 60
WHS 5 19 17 21 - 62
ROP 10 22 12 16 - 60
- Sierra Sun sports editor Sylas Wright contributed to this report.