The game itself wasn't pretty.
But the emotion being spilled out onto the floor of Saturday's Division III district championship game between area foes Western Reserve and Huron was a thing of beauty.
The Tigers were looking for their first regional appearance in 14 years, and were just 2-5 in district play since. The Roughriders haven't won a district in 50 years, and despite eight seasons of 15 wins or more in the last decade, were just 3-7 in district play entering Saturday.
That all carried over into the final moments of Saturday's game, but in the end it was Huron having just a bit more than the Roughriders in a 41-35 win to advance to the Bowling Green regional next week. The Tigers (20-5) will play Bloom-Carroll (25-1) at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday. The Bulldogs finished No. 5 in the final Associated Press state poll.
Western Reserve finished the season at 19-6.
"We had three possessions in a row where we finally made baskets in the fourth quarter,” Huron coach Bobby James said. “We knew that was how the game was going to happen. You knew how well-coached they (Western Reserve) are. They were going to know every single thing we do, Chris (Sheldon) is such a great coach.
“We knew they were just going to know everything we do, and we had to have a counter. We figured out they were going to take away our first initial thing, our second option ... we had to get to a third plan. Our kids needed to be prepared for that, and score off that. That's what we finally did early in the fourth quarter.”
Western jumped out to an 18-12 lead with 5:31 left in the first half, but did not score for a 3:21 stretch of the quarter. Despite that, they still led 22-20 at halftime as the Tigers were just 9 of 16 at the free-throw line in the half.
With the game tied at 22 early in the third quarter, the Tigers also held Western scoreless for spans of 2:57 and 3:07 in the quarter. And while Huron still struggled offensively, those stretches did allow the Tigers to take a 28-27 lead into the fourth quarter.
Cody Thompson opened the fourth quarter with a basket to make it 30-27, but Western finally snapped a scoring drought with a Nate Ash basket with 7:08 left to make it a 30-29 deficit.
But the game swung for good on the next sequence, as Huron got scores from Aaron Casey and Aaron Driftmyer to go up 34-29 with 4:46 left.
After Western's Kevin Boose split a pair of free throws, Driftmyer buried a 3-pointer from the left corner to make it 37-30 with 3:25 left. The Roughriders managed to get within 39-35 with 1:34 left, but three 3-point attempts and a miss on the front-end of a one-and-one free throw situation didn't allow them to get within a possession in the final minute.
"Their athletes made plays. I thought we got some good looks, but they either blocked a shot or tipped a pass,” Sheldon said. “The challenge with them is, you have to really exploit them in the paint when you have an opportunity too.
“We had several chances to do that, especially late in the game, and we couldn't convert. On top of it, I thought Driftmyer was the difference. His baseline drive and his three-pointer were the equalizer that we didn't really have the answer for.”
Huron was just 13 of 34 shooting and 13 of 25 at the free-throw line, while the 'Riders were just 13 of 40 shooting.
“They did a great job chasing our shooters, even though we were screening them,” Sheldon said of Huron. “They are so athletic. When you are used to having an extra step or two on shots and they close that gap quickly, that gave us fits.
“But quite honestly, we still had chances. We got two good looks there at the end to cut it to one, and we missed both. We had a free throw we missed ... those are opportunities you can't afford to pass on. Both teams defensively executed what they wanted.”
James said afterward it was tough to see either team not be able to continue.
“Chris does such a great job with that program, and I think we have a pretty good program right now,” he said. “It would have been nice for one of us to get there, and it's sad someone had to lose this because it was such a hard-fought game.
“Those kids from Western played with so much class and that's a tribute to Chris. But we're cutting down the nets and going to BG, and I never thought they'd let me back in that town.”
Driftmyer finished with nine points and eight rebounds to lead Huron, with Thompson scoring seven points and Casey adding six points and four rebounds. For Western, Boose scored 11 points and Jacob Muenz had nine points and nine rebounds.
“It doesn't get any easier. What's unfortunate, whether it's 50 years or whatever, is for the last ten years I have had tremendous kids play for me,” Sheldon said. “This year is no different. Those six seniors have been in my program since third grade biddy ball. One of these days, the big man above will open the door for us.
“Until that day comes, we'll continue to work hard and keep striving for that goal. It's not because of a lack of effort. It's not because of lack of time commitment, and it's not because of a lack of great kids. That combination is obviously a winning formula, which it has been for us, but tonight wasn't in the cards.”
Meanwhile, James as a group of players that went from 2-3 after five games to co-Sandusky Bay Conference champions and district champions.
“It clicked with the kids. They figured it out,” James said. “We asked them what kind of legacy they wanted to leave, and the lightbulb turned on. I couldn't be more proud of these kids.”