Thirteen Panthers signed on the dotted line for Washougal Thursday night.
They knew their school had never beaten Mark Morris before in boys basketball. Head coach Malcolm Estes didn’t have to say anything.
“Before the game I wrote ‘Do you believe?’ on the board and walked out,” he said. “They all signed their names.”
The Panthers then entered the jungle and defeated the Monarchs 66-58. Senior guard Michael McElroy led the charge by scoring 10 of his team-leading 15 points in the second half. He glided to the basket several times and put the ball off the glass for points. He drew a foul shot on one of those occasions and converted it for a 3-point play to give Washougal the edge leading into the last three minutes of the game.
“I’ve been waiting four years for this victory,” he said. “The seniors played their hearts out and the underclassmen really stepped up. Everybody on the team contributed to this win. That’s what makes it feel so great.”
Mark Morris missed a game-tying basket from the foul line during those final three minutes, and McElroy delivered the ball to Nate Adams for a quick two points. After the Monarchs turned the ball over, McElroy drew the attention of the defenders and created a huge window of opportunity for Austin Tran behind the arc. McElroy kicked the ball out and Tran swished it through the hoop for a 3-point dagger. Two minutes after netting his 3-point play, McElroy was back at the foul line pushing the Washougal lead to 58-51 with 53 seconds left on the clock.
“I had a hard time sleeping last night, and then I came to school today and everybody was talking about this game,” he said. “It feels great to have the support from the crowd and the alumni. We wanted to win this not only for us, but for our coaches and our town.”
The Monarchs were not about to leave quietly. They chipped away at the foul line and hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead down to three points with 27.7 seconds left.
“I was standing next to Nate and I told him, ‘this has got to be the longest minute of my life,’” said senior Aaron Deister. “I think it goes back to our playoff experience again. If it was last year at this time, I don’t think we would have finished that game with a win. But now we believe nothing can stop us.”
The Washougal will never wavered. Jaden Jantzer went 4-for-4 from the foul line during the final minute, and Deister and McElroy were both 1-for-2.
“We were able to weather the storm and hit free throws,” McElroy said. “It just shows how much this team has grown.”
Mark Morris galloped out of the gate for an 8-2 lead off two 3-pointers. Estes then let Sean Guthrie off the leash.
The Washougal senior came off the bench and nailed three 3-pointers for 11 points in the first half. One of his high arcing shots rattled off the rim with so much backspin that it just hung in the air while the audience lost its breath. Suddenly, the ball fluttered backward and dropped straight through the net. Guthrie pumped his fist in the air. He had just given the Panthers their first lead of the night.
“I didn’t think it was going in at first. I was pumped for sure when it did,” Guthrie said. “This year, we’re definitely for real. We want to show everyone who we are.”
The Monarchs put the ball back in the hoop before the halftime buzzer sounded. They went into the locker room up 30-29, but they appeared rattled.
The lead changed several times in the second half. Mark Morris held a 3-point advantage throughout the third quarter. Washougal cut it to one a few times, but couldn’t tip the scale.
Enter Yorro Bah. The sophomore’s eyes opened wide when received the pass behind the 3-point line. Nobody was guarding him so he took the shot. Nothing but net. It was the beginning of a 25-14 swing in favor of the Panthers in the fourth quarter.
“I guess I got lucky,” Bah said. “That’s not my shot.”
“We all knew it was going in when it left his hands,” Deister added.
Then on the other side of the court, Bah held his ground on defense and took a charge to get the ball back for Washougal. He was just as proud of that play as the 3-pointer.
“That’s the kind of stuff we need down the stretch. We’re a team that builds on momentum,” Bah said. “Even if I’m just out there for a minute at a time, I’m going to do whatever I need to do to help the team win.”
The opportunity for the Washougal boys basketball team to make history was the talk of the town Thursday. Imagine what the stories, conversations and memories are going to be like in the weeks to come? Anything is possible when you believe. The Panthers signed their names on the dotted line and proved it.