Ponder Erases 14-Point Deficit in Second Half to Stun Tatum 66-56 in Class 2A State Title Game
AUSTIN -- For all the world, it seemed as if the Tatum Eagles were moments from bringing their first state basketball championship home to East Texas.
But a furious rally over the game's final 10 minutes spelled heartbreak in the state finals for the third time in Tatum school history.
Ponder erased a 14-point deficit late in the third quarter to stun Tatum 66-56 in Saturday afternoon's Class 2A championship game in front of 10,537 fans at the Frank Erwin Center. It was Tatum's third loss in the state finals in three appearances.
"We had the game won, we just let it slip away," said Tatum senior guard Donovan Centers.
Tatum (35-5) led Ponder 45-31 with a little more than two minutes to play in the third, but the Lions cut the deficit to five going into the fourth and grabbed its first lead since early in the opening period less than one minute into the final quarter.
The Eagles briefly regained the lead on their next possession, but it was all Ponder after that. The Lions finished on an 18-7 run and outscored Tatum 35-11 over the game's final 10:07. Clay Morgan's 3-point play with 2:18 remaining gave Ponder a 58-51 lead, and then it was just a matter of making free throws.
"That gave us a little bit of a cushion," said Ponder coach Jude Stanley of the 3-point play of Morgan, who finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds and was voted title-game MVP. "Clay's done that all year. In the regional tournament against Brock, he took a shot and missed and then got the rebound and got the and-1. He's one of the best players in the state of Texas."
Tatum coach Brett Carr praised his team's effort, but mentioned what he felt was questionable officiating down the stretch on multiple occasions during the postgame press conference.
"I can't blame this on officials, but there were some key calls in there that we thought went the other way," he said. "But I thought Ponder's kids definitely earned the state championship."
Ponder sophomore point guard Brady Anderson came alive in the second half. He finished with 19 points after registering just two on 1-of-7 shooting through the first two quarters. Eight of his points came in the fourth.
"I didn't think we pushed the ball the way we wanted to," Carr said. "We told the kids we wanted it to be a fast-paced game. Some of that was my fault because we went full-court man instead of more of run and jump and trap stuff. I thought we'd wear (Anderson) down, but he took it right to us at the end of the game."
Ponder's Logan McCarty started in place of freshman guard Chase Harris -- whose 20-point effort led the Lions to Friday's semifinal win over Aransas Pass -- and came up with 14 points.
Senior guard Klifton Willis, whose buzzer-beating jumper in overtime sent Tatum past Kountze in the regional final, finished his high school career by scoring 17 points to go with six rebounds.
"We've been together since the fifth grade, working to get here," Willis said after Saturday's loss. "It hurts not being able to win it all."
Robbie Rockwell scored 12 points and Chaston Brooks added 10 points, nine rebounds, four steals and three assists in the loss.
Tatum was lights-out from the 3-point line in the first half, connecting on 6 of 12 attempts to build a 28-20 halftime lead. The hot shooting did not continue as the Eagles were just 1-of-12 from beyond the arc in the second half.
"We thought our best chance to win the ballgame was to try to keep them out of the paint," Stanley said. "So what you saw was not a zone defense, but man with applied help behind it."
With Tatum leading 30-24 in the third, Martin Williams was fouled after grabbing an offensive rebound. An intentional foul was called on Ponder's Josh Peterson, and Williams made both free throws. Tatum retained possession, and after another offensive rebound, Willis knocked down a 3-pointer for a 37-24 lead at the 5:16 mark of the third period.
A Brooks traditional 3-point play pushed Tatum's lead to 40-26 moments later. Brooks was then fouled after an offensive rebound and made one of two foul shots to give Tatum a 45-31 lead with 2:27 to play in the quarter.
Ponder then began to make its run, which was highlighted by a five-point sequence early in the fourth quarter.
Anderson's 3-point shot brought the Lions to within one at 47-46. Cameron Sallez then stole the Tatum inbounds pass and knocked down a jumper to give Ponder a 48-47 advantage with 7:03 remaining in the game.
"I saw the ball go through the basket but I did not see the steal; I was looking away for some reason," Stanley said. "I saw the bench and our coaches start going nuts. Cameron steps up and hits the big shot. It is a little bit of a deflator for them, but you've still got a quarter left of basketball. The air doesn't get taken out of a team right there … it's a game of runs, ups and downs and it's a roller-coaster."
Ponder lost the lead on the ensuing Eagles possession, but Morgan's layup with 5:43 to play put the Lions in front for good.
"We had to get stops on top of each other," Peterson said. "In practice we have a stops drill, which you have to get five stops in a row. We were able to get some stops and Cameron had the big steal to kinda boost our momentum, and we just fought back from there."
One of the biggest reasons for Ponder's comeback was its ball security in the second half. The Lions committed 11 turnovers by halftime, but only had two in the game's final 16 minutes.
"Tatum's a very physical ballclub; they're one of the best defensive teams in the state of Texas," Stanley said. "The pressure they were putting on us, it was very difficult for us to get into our offense and flow. In the first half we didn't do a very good job of handling that physicality. In the second half we did a better job of standing up to that physicality and keeping control of the basketball."
No. 4 Ponder 66, No. 2 Tatum 56
Boys Class 2A State Championship Game
At Frank Erwin Center, Austin
Tatum 16 12 19 9 -- 56
Ponder 7 13 22 24 -- 66
TATUM (35-5) -- Klifton Willis, 17; Robbie Rockwell, 12; Chaston Brooks, 10; Martin Williams, 8; Kyshaun Smith, 6; Casey Carr, 3.
PONDER (32-7) -- Clay Morgan, 21; Brady Anderson, 19; Logan McCarty, 14; Cameron Sallez, 7; Josh Peterson, 3; Dustin Ferguson, 2.
THREE-POINT GOALS -- Tatum: Willis (3), Rockwell (2), Carr, Smith. Ponder: Anderson (2), McCarty, Sallez.