For a second consecutive year the Tumwater High School boys basketball team captured a league and district championship.
However, unlike last season, which saw the Thunderbirds’ season end in heartbreaking fashion, they are headed to Yakima to participate in the state tournament.
Spencer Dowers scored eight points in the final two minutes of play, Weston Vandenhazel registered a team-high 17 points, fellow score Jacob Gibbons contributed 16 points and Tumwater held off a late rally by Selah to defeat the Vikings, 60-54, in the Class 2A regional round at Mount Tahoma High School.
“We were up big and they came back,” said Dowers, who finished with 13 points. “We just came together as a team and said, ‘Let’s just play together. Let’s play strong and let’s just have fun.’ That’s what we did and we came out on top. I couldn’t be happier than I am right now. We’re such strong brothers. The last couple weeks have just been so fun. I can’t even explain it.”
Tumwater, champions of the 2A Evergreen Conference and District IV, won its seventh straight game and improved its record to 17-6 with the victory.
The T-Birds will join the seven additional remaining teams at the state tournament, which takes place March 3-5 at the Yakima Valley SunDome.
“We’ve had some ups and downs,” said Gibbons, who hit four 3-pointers. “We’ve had problems, but the last seven or eight games we’ve just been on a roll.”
A field goal by Tyler Dowell gave Tumwater its largest lead of the contest at 47-36 with 7 1/2 minutes remaining.
Back charged the Selah (20-4) behind the play of freshman point guard Elijah Pepper, whose exceptional play in the fourth quarter helped the Vikings go on an 11-0 run to tie the game at 47 with 5:21 left in the game.
It was eerily similar to last year’s regional playoff game for the T-Birds.
Tumwater won its first league and district titles in program history last year only to see its season come to an unexpected and sudden stop in the regional round with a 70-69 loss to Fife.
In that game the T-Birds enjoyed a comfortable 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter, but could not maintain the advantage as the Trojans stormed back to win.
With many players returning from the 2015 squad, the T-Birds were determined not to see another late double-digit lead slip away.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight,” Tumwater coach Thomas Rowswell said. “We had to adjust and stay the course, and we found a way.
Gibbons, who played brilliant throughout the contest, came up with the game’s biggest defensive play when he swatted away a potential layup by Selah’s Zak Donato with five minutes to play.
The bucket would have stretch the Vikings run to 13-0 and gave them their first lead since the opening minute of the second quarter.
“It’s all about emotions and we are a team that really plays off momentum,” Vandenhazel said.
Instead, Gibbons’ block re-energized a lifeless Tumwater team.
“We talked about what didn’t get us to the Dome last year and that was defending. We gave up 70 points against a Fife team. So, we just talked about stops in the fourth quarter and reacting to rebounds,” Rowswell said. “That’s what was going to get us the victory and the guys did a great job in the fourth quarter.”
Selah would eventually grab a 50-49 lead with 3:20 remaining.
Dowers took over with two minutes to play, hitting the first of two late 3-pointers to wrestle the lead back for good.
“Just shoot it just like practice,” Dowers said of his clutch three point basket. “Weston passing to me in shooting drills, just let it go, let it fly and it went in. It felt so good.”
A second three pointer from Dowers found the mark with 43 seconds to play. The senior hit a pair of free throws nine seconds later to push Tumwater’s lead to 59-54.
“We knew going in there would be an adjustment period. We knew going in we might start off slow,” Rowswell said, “but as soon as we adjust and start acting quicker, find our rhythm, just playing for four quarters, we knew it was going to go our way.”
The T-Birds trailed early before closing out the first quarter on an 8-0 run, highlighted by Brian Marty’s half-court heave which swished in at the buzzer, to post a 20-15 lead.
The Vikings answered with a 7-0 run to open the second quarter, but had zero answers for Vandenhazel and his 6-foot-10 frame inside the paint as the senior’s dominant play down low, which included four dunks that brought the bench and student section to their feet, powered Tumwater to a 35-28 advantage at the intermission.
“I was so nervous,” said Vendenhazel about briefly losing the lead in the fourth quarter, “but we just kept playing. We’ve gone through so much this year. It feels so good to go to state finally.”