TAHOE CITY — “All we had to do was hang on to the ball,” said North Tahoe boys basketball coach Frank Wright.
That simple conclusion made Thursday night’s nail-biting ending between rivals Incline and North Tahoe that much tougher to swallow for the Lakers.
With North Tahoe clinging to a one-point lead in the final 30 seconds — recently shaved from a four-point advantage — Incline junior point guard Alex Zissis erased the frustration of a cold shooting night when he stole the ball near midcourt and drove in for the go-ahead layup with 6.1 seconds remaining.
North Tahoe had one final shot at victory. It rimmed out, and the Highlanders escaped with a 57-56 win — their 10th straight.
“It was one of those nights,” said Incline coach Tim Kelly, whose second-place Highlanders (14-2) ran away with a 73-38 win over North Tahoe (6-10) in the teams’ first meeting. “We needed to know we could win ugly. That was our worst game of the year, and we won, so I’m extremely proud of our guys to fight for that win.
“It’s a rivalry game. They (the Lakers) played with a lot of courage. They should be extremely proud of themselves.”
In a game that remained tightly contested throughout, with both teams leading but never by double digits, North Tahoe scored six consecutive points to take a 56-52 lead with 1:01 left in regulation. Junior guard Kolya Kelly knotted the score with a layup after the Lakers beat Incline’s full-court press, senior guard Alex Bourriague made a pair of free throws and junior forward Mitchell Myers made both ends of a 1-and-1 at the line.
Incline senior guard Orin Porter responded with a clutch 3-pointer that went down with a friendly bounce with 37 seconds on the clock, narrowing the score to 56-55.
After a missed North Tahoe free throw on the front end of a 1-and-1, the Highlanders returned the favor with a botched open layup on the other end that would have given them the lead.
The Lakers had a chance to add breathing room from the free-throw line with 20 seconds left, but again they missed the front end of a 1-and-1. The hosts came up with the rebound, however, keeping the ball with North Tahoe.
Myers then rebounded a missed shot on what was potentially the final possession and kicked the ball out to the perimeter, where Zissis thieved it and outraced the Lakers’ defense to the rim, giving Incline a one-point edge with 6.1 seconds.
Drawing up a play during a timeout, North Tahoe fired the inbound pass from Incline’s baseline past half court, where Nick Joslin caught it and dished off to Bourriague. The senior guard drove baseline, bumping into a teammate before continuing his momentum toward the basket.
From almost directly under the hoop, Bourriague threw up an off-balance layup attempt in heavy traffic just as the buzzer sounded. It bounced twice on the rim and rolled off as Incline’s bench and fan section stormed onto the court to celebrate the thrilling victory.
“They (the Highlanders) deserved to win,” Wright said. “They beat us.”
Kelly said his team’s hard-fought win — and near upset — might play into the Highlanders’ favor, as they could use the experience of a pressure situation entering the Division III postseason.
“We actually really needed this, because the last eight games or so, we’ve been blowing people out,” Kelly said. “After watching film of The Meadows and Agassi Prep, we’re going to have to win games like this. But I never had any doubt tonight. I told them (Incline players), ‘We’re going to win this game; we just have to figure out a way.’ And we did.”
Incline scored the first five points of the game before North Tahoe senior point guard Alex Tyler got the Lakers on the board with a 3-pointer. The teams traded leads the rest of the quarter, which ended in a 13-13 tie.
The Lakers, fired up and playing well behind a spirited senior farewell crowd, opened the second quarter with seven consecutive points — part of a 10-0 run stretching back to the end of the first quarter — to take a 20-13 lead. They increased the lead to the largest margin of the night, 24-15, on a Noah McDermott runner before Incline junior guard Jack Clouthier ended the 14-2 run with the first of his three big 3-pointers in the frame.
The Highlanders ended the half on a 10-2 run, thanks to two more 3-pointers by Clouthier, as Incline carried a 33-31 lead into the half.
Incline expanded its lead to 45-38 late in the third quarter when Porter scored in the post and then stole the ensuing inbound pass and scored again. But the Lakers refused to go away, cutting the lead back to three, 47-44, by the end of the quarter.
Both teams missed numerous layups and free throws in the frenetic final frame.
“It was a great game and a great year,” Wright said. “We might not have made the playoffs, but it was a good run. I look forward to next year. I’m sad to lose some great seniors, but we have a great group coming back.”
Porter led all scorers with 16 points, while Clouthier scored 11 for Incline and Ben Snyder had eight. Tyler and Myers scored 11 points apiece to pace the Lakers. Bourriague added 10 points, Kolya Kelly nine, McDermott seven and Joslin six.