During an on-court awards presentation late Saturday night, East High basketball coach Josh Muehlenkamp walked before the chairs where his giddy players were assembled, pulled up his polo shirt and revealed the motivational logo written on the T-shirt underneath:
WE ARE ONE
AGAINST ALL ODDS
The Thunderbirds whooped and hollered, and deservedly so.
Granted, their horrific first half stacked those odds against them, but their heavenly second half delivered redemption that earned East a 66-59 victory over Service and its first Class 4A boys state title since 2000.
The T-birds trailed by 11 at halftime and by 15 before the third quarter was halfway over. They routinely jacked up ill-advised shots in the first half, missed open shots and found themselves exploited in transition by the Cougars, their fellow Cook Inlet Conference member.
“Ooh, we were rough,’’ conceded East sophomore guard Desmond Johnson. “First half, we were terrible.’’
And yet somehow East flipped a switch.
Trailing 43-29 in the third quarter, the T-birds engineered a startling 17-0 run bridging the third and fourth quarters. That rally furnished a 46-43 lead.
“We played a horrible first half,’’ Muehlenkamp said. “But we were only down 11. The kids believe in themselves.
“Service does a great job of getting transition baskets and they were beating us with that in the first half. When we went to half-court (defense) instead of full-court, we started playing better.’’
East outscored Service 47-29 in the second half. The T-birds out-rebounded the Cougars 26-11 in those 16 mintues, including 11-6 on the offensive glass. The T-birds shot 50 percent from the field in the second half and made 12 of 13 free throws.
Desmond Johnson scored all of his 13 points in the second half. Xavier Johnson scored 11 of his 16. Matthew Hardwick contributed all nine of his points and five rebounds, including four on the offensive boards. And Jarred Laws scored 12 of his game-high 21.
“I don’t know how we did it,’’ said Desmond Johnson, who then paused. “Actually, I do — work. Toward the end of the third quarter, I felt it turning.’’
Desmond Johnson is a demonstrative sort. He plays with energy and an attitude tinted with charm — time and again in the fourth quarter, once between his free throws — and he hit all five of those — Johnson swept his hands up to encourage the crowd.
“I hate to coach him some days,’’ Muehlenkamp said with a grin. “But he’s tough as nails, and he has that inner belief, and that makes him special.’’
Service used a 10-0 run to open the second quarter to seize a 22-11 advantage, and the Cougars owned a 30-19 lead at halftime.
Marques Robinson led Service with 19 points, Adam Klie added 13 points and a game-high nine rebounds before fouling out late, and Amu Aukusitino had 11 points.
This was a Service team that beat East in two of three meetings this season, including a 70-45 torch job in the conference tournament.
At state, where the Cougars were seeking their first crown since 1991, they keep coming close tantalizingly close. They were runners-up for the second straight season — they lost in overtime to Dimond in last year’s final — after finished third two years ago.
Come crunch time Saturday night, it was the T-birds who flourished.
“We realized, for all us seniors, we wanted to make a mark on East basketball,’’ Laws said. “This is the greatest feeling.
“This speaks to the character of our team. We keep fighting. We just keep fighting.’’
Usually, that’s what it takes to beat the odds.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Colony bounced back from a heartbreaking semifinal loss to East to claim third place Saturday.
The Knights beat West 50-40 behind 20 points form Hunter Eisenhower. Joe Gray pitched in 11 points and Antonio Bush collected 12 rebounds.
Theo Oghide scored 12 points and Markiss Ailey 10 to lead West.
Lathrop 48, Palmer 41
Tremon Washington poured in 20 points and Kyle Carlson and Gabriel Cunningham combined for 21 to lead Lathrop past Palmer 48-41 in the fourth-place game.
Palmer got a boost from Brian Selmer's 11 points and eight rebounds and Connor Looney's 10 points and seven rebounds.
An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified East High basketball coach as Joel Muehlenkamp instead of Josh Muehlenkamp.