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Churchill rallies to stun Crater in third-place game

CORVALLIS — Crater boys basketball coach Chris Schmerbach knows the Comets will eventually look back on what they did this season and smile at the memory. But, 15 minutes after his team let a 13-point lead and the third-place trophy slip away in a loss to Churchill, he also understands why that kind of reflection may take some time.

“All eight teams that are here want to be state champions,” he said of his postgame talk, “and I was telling them only one team is going to walk out of here being completely fulfilled and happy.”

That team probably wasn’t going to be Crater before Friday’s third-place game and it definitely wasn’t after, as Springfield rallied late to pull out an improbable 58-57 victory at Gill Coliseum.

The loss capped a disappointing finish to an otherwise spectacular resurgence for the Crater program, as the Comets (25-3) captured their first state tournament trophy in nine years a year after finishing 12-12 and missing the playoffs. Crater will bring back to Central Point the fifth-place trophy, its third all-time after finishing fourth in 1990 and sixth in 2009.

“I have a good feeling still,” said Crater’s star senior wing Kiefer Edwards, who dominated before fouling out with 26 points and 21 rebounds. “We’ve earned a lot of respect for our program. We’ve come a long way.”

“You have to look at the big picture,” Schmerbach said, “and the big picture is we really improved and grew as a team and as a program over the last three years. And I challenged our seniors last year, after we didn’t finish the way we wanted to, to set the blueprint for how you work and how you grind and how you sacrifice and how you do things to get better. And those five guys did that and we saw the results this year.”

It looked like the Comets would ride off into the sunset with a satisfying season-ending victory over a Midwestern League rival after Edwards yanked down his own missed shot and laid it in to give Crater a 50-40 lead with 5 minutes, 6 seconds to go, but the 6-foot-6 Edwards was whistled for a technical foul for taunting on the play, a call that seemed to shift the momentum back to the Lancers. Then everything changed.

Isaiah Wallace made both technical free throws, the first two points in what turned out to be 10 for the Lancers in only 51 seconds — two layups by Silas Bennion, another free throw and a 3 by Wallace, and suddenly the game was tied for the first time since the first quarter with 4:13 to go.

Both teams missed opportunities to take the lead over the next two minutes until Churchill finally did, for the first time since three minutes into the game, on a layup by Jonathon Nchekwube with 1:53 left. Ejim Akuma’s free throw with 1:19 to go completed what turned out to be a 13-0 run for the Lancers (21-8), who finished fourth in the MWL and avenged two regular-season losses to the Comets.

Still down 3 after trading free throws, the Comets had the ball and a chance to tie with 47 seconds left, but Mason Vranes’ 3-pointer was off and Churchill was able to secure the rebound. Wallace was fouled and hit two free throws with 15 seconds left to put Churchill ahead by five, 56-51. Mason and Jayden Vranes each hit desperation 3-pointers for the Comets, the last coming with 0.3 seconds left, but it wasn’t enough.

The Vranes brothers scored nine apiece, and Nathan Bittle had seven points, six rebounds and four blocks.

“Not to be that guy, but definitely some calls didn’t go our way,” said Mason Vranes, who also had four rebounds and two steals. “Just shake it off, move on. …it’s definitely a little sour, but it was a good trip, good journey, good season.”

Vranes and the rest of the Comets were especially critical of the fifth foul call against Edwards, who was credited with tying up Nchekwube under the basket with 1:07 to go before the officials changed it to a foul. Making the sting especially visceral was the fact that the possession arrow favored Crater, which trailed by three points at the time.

“I think down the stretch the big difference was fouls,” Edwards said. “We fouled a lot, put them in bonus and they took advantage by knocking them down.”

Churchill hit 12 of 19 free throws in the second half after going just 1-for-2 from the stripe in the first half.

It didn’t take long for Crater to reacquaint itself with the pick and roll after struggling on offense throughout most of its semifinal loss to Thurston. The Comets hit 7 of their first 15 shots against the Lancers to grab a 19-13 lead early in the second quarter and made it 23-15 on a layup by Edwards with 4:34 to go in the half.

Edwards was assertive right from the opening tip, scoring 11 points in the game’s first 12 minutes, and was at his best as the Comets opened up a double-digit lead in the second quarter. He had 16 points and 14 rebounds in the first half.

After Churchill’s Cole Wilkinson hit a jumper in the paint to cut Crater’s lead to 16-13 in the first minute of the second quarter, the Comets outscored the Lancers 14-4 over the next five minutes to grab a 13-point lead. Edwards scored nine points in the run.

Nchekwube had 12 points and 13 boards to lead the Lancers. Silas Bennion scored 15 points and Wallace added 14.

The game was the last in Comets orange and black for five Crater seniors, including three starters: Edwards, Mason Vranes and Cade Weaver.

Schmerbach said each were critical to Crater’s success in their own way.

“Mason’s work ethic, Cade’s spark, Christophe (Stollings) has improved so much and I’m just so happy for him, Julian (Archer) has just been the ultimate teammate and (Edwards) has just been a special, special talent and a really good kid.”


Silas Bennion 5-12 3-3 15, Isaiah Wallace 3-10 5-6 14, Jonathon Nchekwube 6-13 0-2 12, Everett Lewis 2-9 3-5 7, Dylan Carson 2-6 1-2 5, Ejim Akuma 1-3 1-3 3, Cole Wilkenson 1-7 0-0 2, Lucas Schwin 0-2 0-0 0, Tyson Bennion 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-63 13-21 58.

CRATER (25-3)

Kiefer Edwards 8-14 10-15 26, Mason Vranes 3-12 0-0 9, Jayden Vranes 4-6 0-0 9, Nathan Bittle 3-9 1-2 7, Cade Weaver 2-4 2-4 6, Nate Johnson 0-0 0-0 0, Christophe Stollings 0-0 0-0 0, Kruger Edwards 0-0 0-0 0, Nate Horton 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-46 13-21 57.



3-point goals — Churchill 5-22 (Isaiah Wallace 3-9, Silas Bennion 2-6, Everett Lewis 0-1, Ejim Akuma III 0-1, Cole Wilkenson 0-2, Lucas Schwin 0-2, Tyson Bennion 0-1), Crater 4-17 (Mason Vranes 3-10, Jayden Vranes 1-1, Nate Horton 0-1, Nathan Bittle 0-3, Kiefer Edwards 0-2). Fouled out — Churchill-Lucas Schwin, Crater-Kiefer Edwards, Cade Weaver. Rebounds — Churchill 38 (Jonathon Nchekwube 13), Crater 38 (Kiefer Edwards 21). Assists — Churchill 11 (Jonathon Nchekwube 2, Silas Bennion 2, Lucas Schwin 2, Isaiah Wallace 2), Crater 9 (Jayden Vranes 3, Nathan Bittle 3). Total fouls — Churchill 12, Crater 18. Technical fouls — Churchill-TEAM, Crater-Kiefer Edwards. A — 739.



Crater head coach Chris Schmerbach talks to an official during the Class 5A state third-place contest at Gill Coliseum. [MARK YLEN/ALBANY DEMOCRAT-HERALD]
Crater freshman Nathan Bittle takes a 3-point shot against Churchill on Friday in Corvallis. [MARK YLEN/ALBANY DEMOCRAT-HERALD]