TACOMA – Kea Vargas thought the shot was good from the moment he let it go.
And for a nanosecond, the ball started to fall in the net. But, alas, it popped out, and the Kentwood Conquerors escaped with a 56-53 win over the Gonzaga Bullpups on Friday at the Tacoma Dome.
“I thought I hit it,” Vargas said. “It was just a little too much on the back end, but that’s how it goes sometimes.”
For a second straight year, G-Prep came ever so close to advancing to the State 4A championship game.
The Bullpups (24-2) will meet Richland (21-6) to decide third and fifth places Saturday.
Union (21-4) and Kentwood (26-3) play for the title.
It’ll be the third time G-Prep and Richland have played this season. The Bullpups topped the Bombers 81-80 in triple overtime in the subregional title game.
Kentwood had the ball with 27.7 seconds left and just 20 seconds remaining on the shot clock. G-Prep coach Matty McIntyre decided to put it on his defense and not foul, knowing the Bullpups had a chance to get the ball back.
And they did. G-Prep advanced to midcourt and called timeout.
McIntyre designed a play for Sam Lockett to throw it deep into the corner nearest G-Prep’s bench to Devin Culp and for Vargas to pop out for a 3-point shot. It worked just like McIntyre drew it up.
“He had space. It was a good look,” McIntyre said. “Kea’s our guy. He’s made a lot of big shots for us. You’ve got to put the ball in his hands.”
G-Prep had difficulty at times generating offense against the athletic Conquerors.
“They’re a great team,” Vargas said. “They played the toughest defense we’ve seen all year. It took us a while to get used to it. By the time we got ready for it, it was a little too late.”
“We knew they were a tough gritty team,” McIntyre said. “A shot here or a shot there, maybe a stop here or there would have gone a long way. But boy did they hit some big shots. We just couldn’t quite get enough shots to turn the tide.”
A driving basket by Sheadon Byrd gave G-Prep a 45-41 lead with 6:46 remaining.
That’s when Kentwood went on a 9-0 surge. Koby Huerta hit a second straight 3-pointer and the Conquerors led 50-45 with 4:36 to go.
But the Bullpups clawed out of the hole. Byrd hit a 3-pointer to tie the score at 52 at the 2:33 mark.
Kentwood regained the lead at 54-53. Anton Watson hit 1 of 2 foul shots to pull the Bullpups within 54-53 moments later.
Eli’sha Sheppard scored the game’s final basket for Kentwood with 1:33 to go.
“We struggled a little bit here and there to find a shot,” Vargas said. “It hurts. We were right there again. Just shy, just like last year. It’s definitely tough.”
McIntyre was asked what he told his team afterward.
“I love them,” he said. “I say I love you, stick together, and that’s all that needs to be said.”
Lockett led G-Prep with 11 points, six rebounds and three assists. Watson added 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
“I thought we answered the bell a couple times but a stop here or a stop there would have been nice,” McIntyre said.