Phoenix, AZ- There was no shortage of drama in Fultz Memorial Gymnasium on Tuesday night. Led by the late game heroics of Matt Willkomm and Omari Lewis, the Firestorm pulled of an upset of the #10 Hope International Royals 63-62.
It has been a roller coaster of a season for the Firestorm (16-10, 3-10 GSAC), a team that has faced adversity at every corner and been on the wrong end of some gut-wrenching losses. But on this night, it was the Firestorm who stood tall. As the final jumper by Donny Punter fell short and Lewis secured the ball, you could feel the weight being lifted off this teams shoulders. With the playoffs still in the picture for the Firestorm, tonight's win will do a lot to help the Firestorm get into that final spot.
A sense of urgency could be felt early on as the Firestorm came rolling out of the gates to the tune of an 11-3 lead to start the game. Led by seven early points from Chris Sterling, the Firestorm made sure the Royals (21-6, 10-3 GSAC) understood that they had no intention of rolling over. Behind the likes of an a determined group of forwards in Patson Siame (13 points, 9 rebounds) and Lewis (7 points, 12 rebounds), the Firestorm went toe to toe with the top rebounding team in the country. With neither team shooting the ball incredibly well, the Firestorms ability to win a lot of those battles proved to be enough to get them to the victory.
The Royals did get things going offensively and after forcing a few quick turnovers and a couple baskets, they suddenly had made a nine-point Firestorm lead disappear late in the first half. With 1:11 left in the first half, the Royals took their first lead of the game (39-37) which they would hold onto until much later in the game.
It was all Royals to start the second half, as they opened the half up with a 14-2 run behind a couple deep three-balls from Deondre Bryant. With the score 53-40, Coach Jeff Rutter called a second time out and took the opportunity to challenge his guys to fight back. What he got wasn't just a punch back, he got a full out onslaught. A suddenly revived Firestorm offense came roaring back with 11 straight points of their own and set the tone for what proved to be a wild ending to the game with the score 53-51 Royals.
"We started the second half pretty sloppy on the offensive end" Coach Rutter said, "Hope went up 13 and our guys I thought our guys showed a lot of heart battling back."
A beaten and bruised Sterling continued to rise to the occasion in the home stretch of this game, and it was five big points by him that ultimately gave the Firestorm the lead for the first time in the second half.
The dramatics weren't done yet though, as two free throws by Kyle Hoag gave the Royals a 62-61 lead with 37 seconds left. Now down by one, Coach Rutter elected not to call a timeout and instead decided to let his veteran squad make a play late in the game. With the ball in Willkomm's hands, he managed to find just enough space to knock down an ice cold jumper from the elbow to give the Firestorm a 63-62 lead.
With 20-seconds left, the Royals held the ball for the final shot as they worked it around the perimeter letting the clock run down. With only a few seconds left, Punter threw up a prayer from the far corner that hit the iron before landing in Lewis' hands. Lewis raced back up the court running out the rest of the clock, and the party was on as the Firestorm completed a 63-62 upset of the #10 Royals.
"I'm really happy for our guys" Coach Rutter said, "We've had so much adversity and so many distractions, it's a great feeling to go and battle hard together and come away with a win against a top-10 team.
All in all, Tuesday night saw the return of some of the magic that has been missing in Fultz Memorial Gymnasium this season. With three games left in the regular season, the Firestorm know they still have work to do if they want to get into the playoffs. But for tonight, they can take a moment to reflect on what might end up being one of the biggest wins of their season.
The Firestorm will be back in action at home this Saturday at 2:00 pm. They will welcome the Vanguard Lions to town in what is a crucial matchup between two teams vying for the final spot in the conference tournament. With it also being the final home game of the season, the Firestorm will also honor all the seniors in a ceremony in between the two games.