The Sparks boys basketball team held off league rival Lowry 53-50 in overtime to capture the 3A state championship at Lawlor Events Center Saturday afternoon. The win gave Sparks its first state basketball crown since 1940, a span of 70 years. It's the first state championship of any kind for the Rail City's oldest high school since its girls cross country team hoisted a championship banner in 1995. Sparks was still in Nevada's large-school classification then.
"It's more than awesome. It's priceless," Sparks High senior Angel Guillen said. You can't buy this feeling."
Sparks coach Dick Lee, who roamed the SHS sidelines during the mid-1990s and helped the Railroaders to large-school playoff success before taking 10 years off, returned to guide the Railroaders' program three years ago. He understands the struggles at SHS and knows his team's title has special meaning to the Railroaders and SHS alumni.
"It feels awesome," Lee said. "It is special. Our demographics at the school have changed so much since my first tenure here. These kids are special. They did what they had to and it helps to have the best 3A player in the state."
Lee was alluding to Guillen, who finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, both game-highs. Guillen has been named the 3A North's player of the Year each of the last two seasons.
"The ball has got to go through him," Lee said of his all-star guard. "We're a better team when he gets touches. We're a better team when he takes over but still shares the ball."
A night after dropping in a buzzer-beating layup in traffic to beat Yerington in overtime of a 3A state tourney semifinal, Guillen scored another bucket just as big. Sparks trailed 44-42 when Guillen split a pair of Lowry defenders and jumped over another to get a floater to fall and knot the game with 23 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Sparks (20-8) got a defensive stop in the waning seconds as an off-balance baseline jumper from Lowry's Will Thacker sailed long with the buzzer blowing.
The Railroaders did not trail in the extra session. Sparks scored first in overtime after Henry Banks put back a missed Sparks shot for a 46-44 edge. Banks had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. He racked up seven offensive rebounds and put three of them back through the twine for pivotal field goals.
"That's my role. That's what I do to help this team," Banks said. "If we miss shots, I put them back in. I think I did my role and helped my team win today. This is an awesome thing. I'm just a junior so I hope we can do it again next year."
Lowry did tie the game up at 46-46 on the ensuing possession, but it was the last time the game was deadlocked.
Sparks put up the next two buckets on runners from Andrew Garcia and Guillen, leaving the local squad with a 50-46 lead with 2:21 still remaining on the overtime clock.
Lowry's Joel Mendoza banked in an 18-foot jumper from the top of the key to get the Buckaroos within two, 50-48, at the 2:10 mark of overtime. However, that's as good as it got for the Winnemucca school. Sparks connected on 3 of 5 free throws in a two-minute span and Lowry did not score again until Sterling Snow's meaningless jumper was counted as the final horn sounded.
The win was the fourth of the season by Sparks over Lowry. The most recent two SHS victories had come by double digits. Saturday's title tilt was the closest of the meetings. So how did Lowry manage to give Sparks all it could handle in the final battle?
"We were a little bit more patient on offense today, but we still haven't defended them yet," Lowry coach Lee Bosch said. "The way we played last night (in a state semifinal win over Virgin Valley) compared to today, it's like two different teams. I'm a little disappointed in our intensity today. We didn't have any energy. But Sparks deserves it. They deserve all the credit.
The Railroaders appeared ready to blow the game open early in the fourth period. A driving layup by Guillen forged Sparks ahead 40-31 with 5:57 left in the final quarter. It was the largest lead of the day from the SHS-five.
It was also short-lived. Lowry proceeded to go on a 13-2 spurt over the next five minutes. David Eastman's reverse layup with 1:15 left in regulation capped the outburst and saw the Buckaroos go on top 44-42. It was Lowry's first lead since the first quarter but it also set the stag for the Railroaders' late-game heroics.
"We finally got some rebounds there and got our cutters working. We took the right shots and we played better defensively, but then we stopped," Bosch said.
Lee said his team's lack of ball security proved costly when Lowry made its run.
"We turned it over. That's really all we did," he said.
The first half was tight. Neither team led by more than four points in the first two quarters. Sparks led 12-11 at the first quarter's conclusion and 23-21 at halftime.
The Railroaders began to get some separation after the intermission. Lowry pulled within one, 28-27, midway through the third period. Unfortunately for Bucks fans, Sparks scored 10 of the next 12 points during a four-and-a-half minute span that stretched into the fourth quarter. The burst gave Sparks a 38-29 advantage.
"We liked the tempo of the game, especially a night after playing an overtime game where we only played seven guys," Lee said. "We like a game in the 50s. We were very satisfied with where the game was."
The stat sheet was relatively close in most categories. Sparks connected on 21-of-53 (39.6 percent) from the field while Lowry was 23-61 (37.7 percent). Neither team shot the ball well from long range. Lowry was 0-for-7 from 3-point range while Sparks 1-12.
The Railroaders helped their winning cause by out-rebounding the taller Buckaroos, 45-34. Another key difference in the close contest was at the charity stripe. Sparks made 10 of 16 foul shots while Lowry made only 4-of-10.
In addition to solid offensive outings by Guillen and Banks, sparks got 12 points from Martin Jordan.
Dan Westfall paced Lowry with 14 points but he was the lone Buckaroos player to finish in double figures.
Sparks finished its stellar winter campaign on a 16-game winning streak.