STEPHENVILLE — Ponder coach Jude Stanley has a practice ritual with his players.
The goal is to simulate a clutch situation at the free-throw line, and if the player misses the shot, the team runs.
Not even the threat of running can simulate the pressure senior post player Josh Peterson was feeling in the waning moments of Saturday’s Class 2A Region II final against Brock at Tarleton State’s Wisdom Gym.
With the game tied, Peterson pulled down a defensive rebound on an attempted game winner and was fouled by Brock’s Micah Thornton with 0.89 seconds on the clock. Peterson stepped to the line for a one-and-one situation and made both, sending Ponder to the state tournament with a 50-48 win after a desperation heave from Brock was intercepted by Clay Morgan.
“I tried to relax myself and be calm,” said the 6-foot-6 Peterson, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds. “All that was in my mind was just one [free throw]. There was eight-tenths of a second left, and if I make one they need a miracle to win. I just tried to keep it simple, made the free throw and I knew we had it.”
No. 4 Ponder (30-7), which edged out District 9-2A foe Brock in the rubber match between the teams, will return to Austin’s Frank Erwin Center for the first time since 2010, when the Lions won their third straight Class 2A state championship in Stanley’s first year as the Ponder head coach.
The teams split their first two meetings of the year, with Brock scoring an 11-point win at Ponder on Dec. 20 and Ponder returning the favor at Brock with a one-point win Jan. 21.
Stanley said his team was excited to get another crack at the No. 5 Eagles in Saturday’s regional final, not only because they’re familiar district opponents but because Brock defeated Ponder in the regional final last year before finishing as the 2A runner-up for the second consecutive season.
“I’m just so excited for our team and extremely proud of them,” Stanley said. “They fought hard the whole game. It’s only fitting it came down to the last play. You have to win the end of quarters, and we won the quarter that really counted. I couldn’t have scripted this thing any better.”
The script appeared on several occasions to be playing out in Brock’s favor. Led by Lance Ewell’s 13 points and a remarkable 8-for-10 day beyond the 3-point arc, the Eagles built an eight-point lead midway through the third quarter of a game that was rarely separated by more than four points.
Ponder closed the Brock (29-8) lead to three points entering the fourth quarter, and that’s when freshman Chase Harris continued his hot-shooting second half. The Lions guard finished 4-for-7 from beyond the arc, with all four makes coming in the second half — two apiece in the third and fourth quarters.
Harris’ 3-pointer to open the fourth, with the 6-4 Ewell in his face, tied the game and ignited the Ponder crowd.
“I don’t consider him a freshman anymore,” Stanley said of Harris. “He’s earned his stripes. At this point in the season is where you need to be playing your best basketball, and he is. He stepped up and hit some huge 3s, and some of them were NBA-range. He’s got ice water in his veins. He wasn’t afraid of that moment, and he captured it.”
Harris finished with a game-high 16 points, which loomed large considering Brock’s size was able to handle the 6-6 Morgan and limit him to 13 points after he scored 33 in Friday’s semifinal win over New Boston.
Morgan enters the state tournament with the possibility of two more games in his high school career and just 33 points shy of 2,000 for his career. The last time Ponder went to the state tournament, Morgan and his fellow seniors were eighth-graders in the stands watching at Texas.
“I can’t describe the feeling for that senior class — all five of them,” Stanley said. “Those guys have hung together through all the tough times. With every season, you have ups and downs, but those five guys never quit. Josh and Clay continue to get the job done for us. I’m blessed to be able to coach these guys again.”
Harris, who was a fifth-grader in 2010 when Stanley and his new team cut down the nets in Austin, said he and his teammates aren’t finished yet and they’re playing with a common goal in mind.
“That’s part of the thing that drives me,” said the freshman guard. “Some of them [seniors] will never play basketball again after this, and I want them to go out on top. Selfishly, I want to win, too. As much as we can win, we’re going to do it. We’re greedy for wins.”
The Lions are two wins away from a fifth state title in their eighth state tournament appearance, and Peterson said it was special to beat Brock to earn that chance.
“We wanted them again,” Peterson said. “They’re a great opponent and they always give us a tough game. We wanted a little bit of redemption from last year, and now we’re going to Austin.”
ADAM BOEDEKER can be reached at 940-566-6872 and via Twitter at @aboedeker.
Ponder 50, Brock 48
Ponder (30-7) — Clay Morgan 13, Brady Anderson 5, Josh Peterson 12, Chase Harris 16, Cameron Sallee 2, Logan McCarty 2.
Brock (29-8) — Lance Ewell 13, Hayden James 9, Hayden McPherson 8, Micah Thornton 7, Harris Jowell 6, Bailey Cockburn 5.