By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
It was 2010 the last time Sequoyah’s boys basketball team made it to a state basketball tournament.
But the Indians squad that punched their ticket last Thursday for the 2013 edition of the Class 3A “Elite Eight” couldn’t be blamed if they felt it was a little like 2003.
That team latched on to the school’s first gold ball. While the Indians have knocked on the door a few times since – Blake Griffin and Oklahoma Christian and Rotnei Clarke and Verdigris denied them at the summit in 2005 and 2008, this group has earned some pretty impressive skins, upsetting No. 1 and defending champion Oklahoma Centennial 71-67 to win the Area I championship last Friday.
“It felt real big,” said forward Ryan Helsley. “We came out of the toughest area tournaments and to beat the No. 1 team and defending champ to do it gives us a lot of confidence.”
The eighth-ranked Indians (19-8) trailed by 19 at one point in the third quarter and got a break when Centennial’s 6-foot-6 post, Austin Garner, drew his fourth foul immediately followed by a technical with 16.4 left in the third quarter. All this, just as coach Jay Herrin was considering pulling the plug on the effort and planning for a consolation final on Saturday and the back-door route to state.
“Early on our shots weren’t falling and I thought if we could come out the second half and get it within single digits quickly we’d be where we wanted,” Herrin said. “But then they go up 19 and I’m wondering about saving our legs because of the intensity of their style of play. I didn’t want us to save something but then we get it back down to 8 and we had had trouble with him in the lane. Things started opening up for us a little there.
“When we got him out we were able to drive effectively and we made our free throws. People assume that with the way we typically are that we did it shooting 3s but we had just three 3s the whole game. And as we got back in the game, our crowd was with us too.”
So was his bench – a concept that’s not exactly foreign for Sequoyah, which over the past decade has gone as deep as a portion of a third unit. Thirty-three points came from the bench Friday, led by a season-high 21 from Tyler Jones, a senior.
“I’ve been coming off the bench the whole time I’ve been here,” Jones said. “I really don’t know anything else but that and I’m OK with it.”
“Everybody on that second team has accepted their role and realized it’s just as good to finish a game as it is to start,” Herrin said. “There’s not a problem with selfishness with any role. Zack Parrish is another guy we had in there late. He’s not normally a point guard but because of the matchup advantage of him being a good ball-handler and left-handed, he’s a little tougher to guard. And then we had a kid like Elijah Tucker come in and take three charges inside for us.”
For these Indians to get to where the 2003 team was, or even the ’05 or ’08 team, they’ll have to first get past No. 5 Sperry (23-4) in a 2 p.m. tipoff Thursday at Yukon High School. It’s a team that will provide a similar tall order in 6-6 Casey Cole, who had 19 points in an overtime win over Adair to qualify for state last Saturday. Point guard Blake Teel had 16.
“We’re pretty similar in a lot of ways to them except that they’re more post-oriented,” Herrin said. “We’ll need to do a good job of attacking the rim.”
No doubt the fan base is revved up. Sequoyah thrives on this stage, owning some of the top all-time crowds at State Fair Arena. The last time the Indians reached the final, those fans along with those wanting to see the state’s all-time scoring leader in Clarke pushed the arena further past its capacity than any other contest had.
“Any time you’re playing where there’s a hostile crowd, it can be a distraction,” Helsley said. “Our fans give us an advantage.”
But after last week’s shocker, neither the Indians nor their following will sneak up on anyone.
“You shouldn’t anyway at this point,” he said. “When you get down to eight teams, everybody’s got to be on their game or anyone can knock you off.”