ORWELL - Following Cornerstone Christian's first-ever district championship on Friday night, coach Dan Selle didn't get too far along answering the first question from reporters before heaping praise on his opponent, Maplewood.
Considering it was the closest tournament game the Patriots have had so far, it's understandable why Selle wanted to praise the Rockets. Maplewood didn't go down quietly before losing in a Division IV district final at Grand Valley High School, 62-53.
"The thing I was most impressed with Maplewood is we had them on the ropes a couple times, but we couldn't knock 'em out," Selle said. "I thought up 15, up 14, we might be able to stretch it to 25 and put the game away, but we never could. They always hung in there the entire game. I think that's a hallmark of a really good team and a great coaching staff."
Maplewood (20-5) trailed by as many as 22 points at the 2:47 mark in the third quarter before the Rockets went on a 10-0 run that stretched to the 6:48 mark in the fourth quarter. From there, Maplewood eventually chipped the deficit down to 59-53 with 30 seconds remaining before the Patriots (20-4) took care of business from the free-throw line.
"They fought through a little adversity, and that's why we've been successful because that's how they respond when things get tough," Maplewood coach Nathan Kish said. "Instead of giving up, they fight. I couldn't be more proud of the group of guys that I coach right now."
The late comeback wasn't the first time the Rockets recovered in the game, as three-and-a-half minutes into the first quarter, the Patriots jumped out to a 9-3 lead. Maplewood responded with an 11-0 run over the next 3 minutes to take a five-point advantage.
Maplewood was able to go on that run because they deployed a triangle-and-two to stop Cornerstone's outside shooting threats in R.J. Spaller and Daniel Bennett. It worked, as the two combined for zero 3-pointers and four points in the first quarter.
"We just put it in Wednesday, right after we figured out who were playing," said Maplewood senior Kevin Jones, who led the team with 13 points. "We came and scouted the game. We saw that they had two great shooters that hit 10, 12 3s. We played a triangle-and-two to try and stop the penetration and not allow the shooters to get 3s."
That's when Bryan Gee, who's committed to play at Longwood University next year, stepped up and took over the Patriots. The senior point guard penetrated the triangle and forced the Rockets out of the defense in the second quarter by draining a 3 himself, as Cornerstone finished the half on a 19-6 run that gave it an eight-point lead at the break.
Gee then broke open the game by sparking an 18-4 run to start the second half, scoring 10 of his game-high 24 points in the first 5 minutes of the third quarter. That run gave the Patriots a 46-24 lead before the Rockets could stop the bleeding.
"(Gee) is just a great basketball player," Kish said. "He has all the tools. He's quick, he's smart, he's athletic. He's going to play Division I basketball, and there's a reason for it."
This loss ends the careers of six seniors for Maplewood, and Kish said they will be huge losses for next season's squad, as they made up about 80 percent of the team's scoring. With such a loss, one can expect a dropoff, but Kish said he hopes the younger players can learn from what this group accomplished and use it next year.
"We have solid juniors coming back, and we have some young kids that if they get in the gym and they work at it and they work hard in the summer, I think we can come back and surprise a lot of teams next year," Kish said.