Are you a believer in the Washougal High School boys basketball team?
The Panthers did everything in their power Saturday to change people’s minds. They rallied from 13 points down in the fourth quarter to defeat W.F. West of Chehalis 58-57, at Mark Morris High School in Longview.
“That was the best basketball game I’ve ever played in,” said junior forward Aaron Deister. “We don’t give up. That’s for sure.”
Tonight’s third-place game in Chehalis features a return bout between Washougal (14-9) and North Thurston from the first round. Tip off is at 7:30 p.m. The Panthers lost by only three points the last time, before beating Black Hills Wednesday and W.F. West Saturday for a shot at redemption.
“We’ve been on quite a ride, and we just want to keep it going one possession, point and game at a time,” said head coach Malcolm Estes.
Saturday’s six-minute swing dance by the Panthers is something people will be talking about forever. When the Bearcats built a 51-38 advantage at the start of the fourth quarter, at least half of the people in the gym thought Washougal was left for dead. But the frustrating turn of events only seemed to light a firecracker in the hearts of the Panthers. They were still living and breathing.
“We got back to focusing on what we could control, which was our effort, enthusiasm and execution,” Estes said.
“We just took it one possession at a time and stepped it up on defense,” Deister added. “We got some big stops and made some big shots. That’s pretty much where it all started.”
On the next possession for Washougal, Michael McElroy nailed a 3-pointer from up top to swing the momentum. W.F. West kept adding points at the foul line, but the defense by the Panthers made it difficult for the Bearcats to make baskets. Washougal seniors Mustapha Bah and Isaac Bischoff attacked the hoop like there was no tomorrow.
“I took Isaac out of the game for a little bit, and he wasn’t happy with me,” Estes said. “That was how I hoped he would respond. He got back in there and dominated on the boards and basket the rest of the way.
“When we were down by 13, Mustapha came up to me and said ‘I don’t want to go out like this,’” Estes added. “What you saw was two seniors who were not ready to go home.”
Bah drove to the basket for two points to get Washougal within eight points. The Panthers got the ball back, missed a shot, but Bischoff grabbed the rebound and put it back in the net. He also drew a foul shot and converted it to complete a 3-point play. Washougal was within five points with less than four minutes to go.
Washougal made a stop on defense and scrambled for another basket. Deister took the shot. The ball bounced off both sides of the rim before falling into the net. W.F. West went up by four points at the foul line, but couldn’t stop Bah from driving the lane and cutting the lead to two with two minutes left.
Another foul shot for the Bearcats put them up by three. David Crowley caught a deep pass on the other end of the court. He fed Bischoff on an open lane to the basket for two more points. The Panthers got the ball back again in the final minute of the game, trailing by one point. They took a quick shot and missed, but Bischoff was right there again for the rebound and putback to give Washougal a 56-55 lead with 23 seconds left.
“Right when I shot it, I knew it was going in,” Bischoff said. “It was one of my best experiences ever in basketball.”
Washougal needed one more stop, and got it when Deister intercepted a pass.
“It was so surreal in that moment. I couldn’t believe it,” Deister said. “We came back and won the game, and now we’re playing for regionals.”
Deister kicked the ball back to McElroy, who was fouled with 9.1 seconds on the clock. As he stepped up to the free throw line, McElroy remembered the two shots his missed in the loss to North Thurston. With the outcome of this game weighing on his shoulders, McElroy tuned out the noise and went one-on-one with the basket. He made the first free throw and the second one, pumping his fist with each swish.
“To be able to redeem myself in that moment was just great,” McElroy said. “This win means a lot to us. The seniors get to keep playing and the juniors are getting more experience for next year.”
Bischoff scored all eight of his points for the Panthers in the fourth quarter. Deister finished with a team-high 13 points and McElroy chipped in 11. Jaden Jantzer delivered two 3-pointers off the bench on way to 12 points. Bah netted six points, and Crowley and Austin Tran each had four. Nate Adams and Regan Townsend also anchored the defensive effort.
“It’s great to see these guys sticking together and believing in themselves,” Estes said. “These kids are creating memories to last a lifetime. They are excited about the experience, soaking it up and enjoying every minute.”