by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
The last two shots Brandon Giese took in a glittering career were a pair of hurried 3-pointers from way beyond the arc at Williams Arena. Both of them missed. At the state tournament, there can be cruel endings to the most giddy of seasons.
The Zimmerman Thunder were trying desperately to tie their state opener against Waterville-Elysian-Morristown in the closing seconds Wednesday night. They snagged a long rebound after both misses, and had one more chance as Caleb Lunning fired one from near the sideline.
But that one was blocked by Tate Harmon and the game was over.
Thus the WEM Buccaneers sent Zimmerman home with a 61-58 loss — after the Thunder led by 12 in the second half — and no second game, no television appearance that’s reserved only for the final four teams in each class.
“I’m proud of the kids for battling back after they fell behind,” said Thunder coach Ben Kvidt. “They are very disappointed. It’s always tough to lose a close game, especially at state. But I think eventually they’ll look back and remember it was one of the most fun times of their lives.”
For now it was a glum locker room and silent trudge back to the bus for a team that played an impressive game against a 29-2 team that had been beating opponents by an average of 30 points. The team had the motto “Make it Happen” that was emblazoned on their fans’ tee-shirts and could not quite get it done.
The Thunder (22-9), making their school’s first state team appearance in any sport, led 33-23 at halftime, capped by Giese’s 3-pointer at the buzzer, and made it 35-23 when Blake Ehley started the second half with a putback of a missed “three” by Giese.
But that’s when the Buccaneers, bedeviled by Zimmerman’s ball pressure until then, started to claw their way back. After giving up 16 turnovers the first half, they had only six in the second half and outscored the Z-Men 38-25.
“We locked down on defense, and started taking better shots on offense,” said Conrad Masberg, Buc senior guard who had seven of his team’s 22 turnovers. “(Earlier) we were just not taking care of the ball.”
Harmon, a junior guard, was game-high with 23 for the Bucs, shooting 9-for-14 from the field and 3-for-6 on 3-pointers. Masberg added 16 points. Junior point guard Grant Pope also had seven turnovers but was a big key with nine points, seven assists, three steals and a stellar defensive job on Giese.
Ehley led the Thunder with 17 points, shooting 7-for-9 on field goals, 3-for-5 at the line. Jake Wilson, soph forward, delivered 12 points off the bench.
Meanwhile, Giese, who finished with a Thunder career record 1,368 points, had a rough night, scoring 11 points on 5-for-19 shooting, and the 3-pointer at the halftime horn was his only one in nine attempts. Giese was hounded by Pope throughout the game.
“Brandon didn’t have a good shooting night, and you have to give (Pope) some credit for that,” said Kvidt.
WEM coach Jeff Wagner credited Zimmerman’s harassment of the Buc ballhanders as the main reason they fell behind by 12 points and his own team for sticking with it.
“Zimmerman put great ball pressure on us, and we are not used to that,” said Wagner. “But we have good athletes and they eventually learned how to handle it. Plus, late in the game both teams were getting tired, and when you’re tired, the first thing that goes is ball pressure.”
Ehley sank 12 points in the first half including a 3-point play on a short jumper that opened a 22-18 lead and started the Thunder’s best stretch of the game. A jumper by Wilson, layup by Cory Foyt, a putback by Gavin Doppler, layup by Ehley and Giese’s trifecta opened a 10-point lead.
The Buccaneers shot 13-for-21 in the second half, including 4-for-6 on 3-pointers. And the Thunder felt the pressure, hitting just 11 of 31 in the second half after nailing 14 of 27 in the first half.
“We didn’t make enough plays in the second half,” said Kvidt. “We were rushing a bit, losing our composure and forcing shots we didn’t need to take.”
Zimmerman had a 34-33 rebound edge in a duel of two fast, small teams, and a final 18-22 turnover edge, with 12 steals, led by Adam Fordahl with three.
WEM caught up at 46 on two free shots by Masberg and pushed ahead 48-44.
Foyt, a member of the Thunder second five that usually enters en masse, nailed a 3-pointer to slow the Bucs’ momentum. The Thunder would regain leads at 52-51 (twisting layup by Giese), 54-53 (scrappy inside bucket by guard Kyle Connelly) and 58-56 (rebound shot by Wilson).
The Bucs countered. Harmon tied it with two free shots and they got the ball right back when an errant downcourt pass by Nate Christensen was swiped by Pope, who then gave his team the lead 60-58 with a runner in the lane.
Inside one minute now. Wilson missed a jumper and Harmon rebounded and got fouled, but gave the Thunder a reprieve, missing two free shots with :48 left.
But the Thunder had a pass go awry the second straight possession, this one a bounce into the lane by Ehley that was swiped by, again, Grant Pope. Masberg went to the line with :26 left and missed the first but made the second, forcing the Thunder to go for three.
WEM had the Bucs well-covered as they zipped the ball around the perimeter. Giese missed with :11 left, got the ball back after Christensen rebounded and was off the mark again with :07 left. Ethan Lunning chased down the rebound and tossed it to his twin brother Caleb, whose shot with :02 left was snuffed out by Harmon. Game over.
Waterville-Elysian-Morristown 61, Zimmerman 58
WEM — Grant Pope 9 (7 ast, 3 stl), Tate Harmon 23 (6 reb, 2 blk, 2 stl), Conrad Masberg 16 (3 ast), Zach Erdman 1, Jordan Gregor 7 (8 reb), Brady Hruska 3, Tyler Kahnke 2 … 3-point shots: Pope 1, Harmon 3, Masberg 1, Hruska 1 … Team totals: 22-40 FG, 6-13 3FG, 11-21 FT, 33 rebounds, 13 fouls, 22 turnovers
Zimmerman — Caleb Lunning 2, Brandon Giese 11 (2 ast, 2 stl), Ethan Lunning 3 (2 stl), Nate Christensen 0 (6 reb, 2 stl), Blake Ehley 17 (5 reb), Adam Fordahl 2 (3 stl), Cory Foyt 5 (4 ast), Gavin Doppler 4, Kyle Connelly 2, Jake Wilson 12 (4 reb) … 3-point shots: Giese 1, Foyt 2, Wilson 2 … Team totals: 25-58 FG, 4-15 3FG, 4-10 FT, 34 rebounds, 19 fouls, 18 turnovers