Great Falls found themselves in a very unusual position in Saturday's Class A state championship game against Burke of Charleston.
Great Falls faced a rare double-digit deficit and threatened to lose control as the decisive fourth-quarter was fast approaching.
However, the Red Devils responded to that challenge and staged a furious comeback down the stretch for the 53-50 victory at the Colonial Center in Columbia.
Just what triggered the comeback? It just depends on who you asked. The Great Falls players pointed to sheer heart and determination; veteran Red Devil coach John Smith pointed to opportunities from Bulldog missed free-throws and turnovers; and Burke coach Earl Brown said that his team went through a series of back luck at the wrong time.
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"It came down to one word and that is heart," Talford said. "It came down to who ever wanted it the most. Last year (with Great Falls dropping a heartbreaker to Hemmingway in the state finals) is over with, and now, it is just a matter of who was man enough to go get it.
"Obviously, we were the team that wanted it."
Smith said that in addition to heart, the Red Devils comeback benefitted from a bit of luck with errant Bulldog free-throw shooting down the stretch.
"It is hard to say that our press was ineffective when it was a steal and lay-up which put us in the lead," Smith said. "But Burke missed a few free-throws down the stretch and that left the door open for us.
On the contrary, longtime Burke coach Earl Brown, whose team suffered its third straight state championship defeat, said that his team lost its poise as evident with four turnovers on their final four possessions.
"It was just one of those situations," Brown said. "I felt that we played too fast in the end."
The Red Devils, who led by two at the half, lost momentum and were watching Burke bring the Bulldog fans to their feet when David Brown scored on consecutive lay-ups, completing a 21-10 run.
That gave the Bulldogs a 40-29 lead and caused veteran Great Falls coach John Smith to whistle time-out with 1:19 remaining in the third quarter.
"That was a critical point right there," Smith recalled. "We closed out the third quarter with six consecutive points and then got the first two of the fourth quarter. We needed that because if we would have gone into the fourth down to them down by double-figures, I doubt if we would have been able to come back."
Reserve guard Brandon Criscoe completed a 3-point play with a lay-up and free throw to pull Great Falls within five, 40-35, at the end of the third.
Xavier Holmes, who led the Red Devils with 18, sank two free throws to bring the Red Devils to within three.
From that point, it was anyone's ball game with the outcome, Great Falls junior Ernest Talford said, boiling down to determination.
Talford sank a deep 3-pointer from the corner to bring Great Falls to within one, 48-47, with 1:44 remaining, and picked up a key steal and pass to Criscoe for a lay-up on the next possession to put the Devils ahead by one, 49-48.
Burke briefly regained the lead on a Solomon Dukes interior hoop, but the Red Devils ended the game on a 6-0 run, thanks to clutch defense which forced three Bulldog turnovers down the stretch.
That completed the double-digit comeback and gave Great Falls the school's ninth boys basketball championship, and the team's seventh during the 42th year under Smith.
But in the end, Red Devils guard Shaquille Simpson said that it all boiled down to heart, and each player on the 13 players on the roster had more than enough to bring the title back to Great Falls.
"It all boiled down to effort and we gave it our all," especially while facing the second-half deficit. "We had to get it down to bring the championship back to the Falls City."