Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
About two inches and some metal separated the Durango High School boys basketball team from a W on Saturday afternoon.
And those two inches struck five times in the final minute.
In the last 32 seconds, the Demons missed four free throws and a buzzer-beater that rattled off the back of the rim against Southwestern League rival Montrose on Saturday at the DHS gym, falling by a gut-wrenching single point as Easton Garcia’s final-second turnaround jumper bounced off the backboard, off the rim, then left the score at 59-58.
“Again, we played hard. The effort was there,” DHS head coach Alan Batiste said. “Just fell short, but the opportunity was there. ... Down the stretch, you got to hit at least one.”
With their last four foul-shot misses, the Demons hit just 4 of 14 from the line Saturday.
But Batiste said the boys never gave up against the Indians, who are ranked No. 10 in Class 4A by coloradopreps.com. Twice the Indians jumped up by seven points in the second half, but both times the Demons battled back to set up the game’s frenetic final minutes.
Montrose pulled ahead 52-45 with just less than 5 minutes to go on a 3-pointer from Cameron Jones, who scored 14 points behind Nathan Hawley’s game-high 18.
In the next 90 seconds, Durango’s Joe Keresey hit back-to-back 3s to pull within three points with about two minutes to go. He also came up with a big block on the other end of the floor.
The Indians tried to hit a long pass on the subsequent inbounds play under their own basket, but just like football season, Garcia turned around just in time to grab the over-the-shoulder fly route and motored toward his own basket before missing a contested layup.
After the game, Batiste praised Garcia’s offensive contributions. Even though he doesn’t always add a lot of points, Batiste said Garcia pushes the ball down the court, makes important passes, does a great job managing the ball and generally makes things happen. His final line: nine points, six assists and four rebounds.
Morgan Miller scored a team-high 14 points for DHS.
After being fouled rebounding Garcia’s layup, Montrose’s Michael Orndorff, who scored 11 for the Indians, hit one of his two double-bonus shots to put the Indians up by four.
Nick Hamlin closed the gap to 57-55 on the next play with a big step-and-spin move that he used at will throughout the game for his 13-point total.
“Nobody in the league can guard him flat out, straight up, one-on-one,” Batiste said.
Fouled again bringing the ball down the court, Orndorff missed both of his shots on the next possession. Hamlin, who grabbed nine off the glass during the game, pulled down the rebound and hit Garcia in transition.
Instead of taking the ball to the glass himself, though, Garcia dished to a wide open Kaleb Cobb, who hit a 3-pointer to put the Demons up 58-57.
Montrose answered to retake the lead, and when the Demons again found Garcia down low, he got hacked back to the foul line.
With 32 seconds left, he bounced both off the back of the rim.
“I’ll take that personally,” said Hamlin, the son of Thomas and Victoria Hamlin. “I don’t want to miss a free throw ever again after that.”
He’s not the only one, either.
With time running out, the Indians looked to run out the clock, but defensive specialist Connor Dugan, who had four steals for the Demons, stripped the ball just past half court and sprinted toward the hoop. With two defenders trailing, Dugan pulled up instead of going up and got fouled high and low.
Montrose was called for a flagrant foul, leaving Dugan with two shots and the Durango Demons with one final possession.
Dugan, too, bounced both off the back of the rim.
With 10 seconds left, the Demon’s mishandled their inbounds play, and the ball bounced around the court from player to player and team to team. The Demons desperately scrambled to get it in grasp and in the net as the seconds rolled off.
Garcia finally found it near the corner of the arc as the clock ticked down to one second, and he had just enough time to turn around and launch it as the buzzer sounded.
“I was just trying to get the ball off,” Garcia said.
“I was just hustling until the buzzer.”
The gym held its collective breath as the shot hit the corner of the backboard square, hit the rim, then fell wide for the final one-point margin.
“It hurts,” Hamlin said.
He said the Demons have got to take advantage of opportunities such as foul shots to avoid such close losses.
“That’s the difference,” Hamlin said. “You see a one-point game, look at the free throws.”
Batiste said the boys have to hit at least 50 percent of those shots and have to keep learning to finish games. The Demons led 29-26 at the half after fighting to a near-stalemate for the first two quarters.
“We’re right there, but finishing the game is key for us,” Batiste said.
Nevertheless, the Demons (11-9, 3-4 SWL) can’t dwell on their mistakes, and they’re just fine moving ahead, he said.
They need to win two of their last three to stay in playoff contention, and the tight loss to the 17-3 Indians will help, Garcia said.
“It tells us we can compete with a lot of teams,” said Garcia, son of Alfonso and Yvette Garcia.
“It gives us confidence as a team.”