by Than Acuff
Coach Brandin Hamilton knew what his team was getting into when they hosted the Custer County Bobcats in Mt. Olympus on Friday, February 9. His team had just faced a very similar foe the week before and came out with a tight win so Hamilton looked to the same template when he prepared for the Bobcats: Keep the game moving, keep the Bobcats uncomfortable and do what needed to be done to get the win.
For the most part the game plan played out as the Titans remained in the hunt all game long with neither team able to pull away until Crested Butte scored six points in the final 90 seconds to win 50-48.
“That’s kind of been our M.O. recently,” says Hamilton. “Our games have been tight and we’re learning how to win the close ones.”
The Titans came out in the first two minutes on fire, paced by their press and solid rebounding. Murphy Smith grabbed an offensive board and dished to Jovany Aguirre for the first bucket. Aguirre was fouled on the play, hit the free throw, Joseph Cummins stole the ball on the ensuing possession and scored and Crested Butte was off to a 5-0 lead.
Custer County regrouped to come right back, cutting the lead down to one before Aguirre hit a three-pointer, but the Bobcats started working the ball inside as their perimeter shooters were cold.
Custer County started to catch a little momentum during the second quarter and could have easily taken over the game with a raucous visiting crowd backing their effort while the Titans’ fans sat relatively silent.
Fortunately, the Titans got hot from three-point range as Cummins and Aguirre each hit from distance and Ethan Bacani came off the bench to drain a couple of three pointers of his own for a 27-25 Titan lead at halftime.
“We expect to hit threes and we had lots of opportunities inside that just didn’t go in,” says Hamilton. “I was more worried about our defense. Giving up 25 points in that kind of game is too much.”
Then, the third quarter blues hit the Titans again. Throughout most of the season, the Titans have struggled in the third quarter but the past two weeks, they appeared to have fixed the problem, until Friday night.
The Titans’ first four possessions of the third quarter resulted in two turnovers and two missed shots while Custer County kept plugging away to take a 35-30 lead. Yet, before things got away, Josh Merck drove to the bucket for two points and Cummins stole a pass and drained another three-pointer to salvage a brutal third quarter and head into the fourth, down by just three points.
“We came out flat and I just kept telling the guys, keep grinding,” says Hamilton. “The two that Josh hit was big. It just energized the team.”
Aguirre fed off that energy and added to it with tenacious rebounding and he continued his effort into the fourth quarter opening with an offensive board, and subsequent three-point play as he scored, was fouled and hit the free throw.
“Jovany was huge, he had to find his points in a scrappy way because they weren’t giving him much,” says Hamilton.
The Titans remained erratic but strong enough to hold off the Bobcats as Custer County looked to put the game away. Free throws kept the Titans in reach as they fell behind 48-44 with a minute and a half left. Hamilton called a timeout to put the final plan in place as they looked to come back and pull out a win.
The Titans came out of the timeout with a different press and man-to-man defense to step up the game one more notch down the stretch.
“The idea was to make it frantic,” explains Hamilton. “I felt like they wouldn’t be able to stay with us if we pressed on the gas one last time.”
The plan worked as the Titans took advantage of tight calls from the officials to draw fouls and step to the line. Cummins drained four in a row to tie the game 48-48 while the Titans’ defense continued to fluster the Bobcats. Then, with 35 seconds left, the Titans had the ball and were set up for the final shot. Instead, Cummins saw an opening and drove to the hoop with 16 seconds left, got fouled, hit both free throws and gave the Titans a 50-48 lead with nine seconds left.
“He ran what we were supposed to run, it was just sooner than expected,” says Hamilton. “But, I’d rather have him do that then turn the ball over.”
The Bobcats called a timeout and set up for one final chance but the Titans’ man-to-man defense came through and Custer County couldn’t even get a final shot off as the buzzer sounded.
“It’s almost more fun to win it on the defensive side,” says Hamilton. “It almost seems more legit.”
Cummins finished the game leading the Titans with 25 points, followed by Aguirre with 16. The team shot 16 for 20 from the free throw line, 10 of 11 in the fourth quarter, and hit a total of eight three-pointers. But it was the defense down the stretch that sealed the deal.
“All week we’d been working on man-to-man defense and we went with it all the way at the end,” says Hamilton. “They executed it down the stretch and I couldn’t have been happier.”
The Titans close out the regular season this weekend as they host the Sargent Farmers on Friday, February 16 at 7 p.m. and then hit the road on Saturday, February 17 to play the Del Norte Tigers.
“Sargent beat us earlier this year on a last second shot so the guys are looking forward to that game,” says Hamilton. “And Del Norte is just another opportunity for us to play against one of the best teams in the state and see how we match up. It’s our last opportunity to clean up how we’re playing this year before playoffs.”