By Scott Prater
After finishing each of the past two seasons as one of Schriever’s top basketball teams, members of the 1st Space Operations Squadron finally hoisted the championship trophy Feb. 28 as they upended previously unbeaten 3 SOPS 44-36 in the title game.
It was a long time coming for 1 SOPS, which fell by a point in the title game in 2011 and faltered in the semifinal round last year.
“We’ve been in this position the last two years and I think we really showed how much we wanted the championship today,” 1 SOPS forward Shaen Gutzman said.
Behind the hot shooting of veteran point guard Eric Palmer, who hit a trio of 3-pointers in the first half and ended with a team-high 16 points, 1 SOPS started hot.
“He [Palmer] always presents a challenge defensively because you can’t get easy steals off him,” 3 SOPS forward Deane Lake said. “He’s smart and shoots well and when he gets hot he’s tough to contain.”
Palmer brought the 1 SOPS crowd to their feet inside the first minute when he sunk his first 3-pointer from the left wing. Willie Jenkins followed with a rebound and a bucket less than a minute later and Palmer capped the opening rally with a second 3-pointer on 1 SOPS’s next possession.
Meanwhile, 3 SOPS couldn’t shake its opening doldrums. More than four minutes had drained off the clock before Brandan Ward hit the team’s first basket, due in part because Jenkins dominated the defensive boards early, grabbing nearly every rebound.
Brad Shirley, playing in his last game at Schriever, ignited the 1 SOPS faithful and his teammates through hustle play, diving after loose balls and finding open teammates for easy baskets. Encouraged by a raucous crowd, 1 SOPS led 11-4 at the 7-minute mark and 16-9 midway through the first half.
As soon as it seemed like 1 SOPS might turn the game into a rout, however, Deane Lake showed why 3 SOPS had entered the game unbeaten. He found his range outside the paint and scored all seven of his points in the last two minutes of the first half.
Leading by six points at the break, 1 SOPS’s hold on the lead proved tenuous early in the second half. Ora Cranford buried a turnaround jump shot on 3 SOPS’s first touch, Tyrelle Shepherd drained a long 2-pointer from the top of the key and Cranford tipped in a rebound to cut the lead to two.
“Yeah, we haven’t lost all season, but we’ve trailed at halftime in at least a few,” Lake said. “Twenty minutes is a lot of time and we knew if we came out strong in the second half we could get it tight down the stretch.”
From there, however, Jenkins and Shirley took over on the defensive end, grabbing key rebounds and loose balls. All five of Shirley’s points came in the second half.
“He sets the tone for us,” 1 SOPS forward Robb Owens said of Shirley. “When you see a retired chief running around, fighting for possessions and putting out all that effort, it’s inspiring. It gives us all a higher level of intensity.”
They needed that intensity as Shepherd ignited 3 SOPS’s offense. He scored 16 of his game-high 18 points in the second half, most on drives through the heart of the 1 SOPS defense.
Palmer answered by slowing the pace, lengthening possessions and finding his teammates for easy baskets. Jenkins and Gutzman both contributed five points in the second frame and Palmer added another five, most from the foul line.
Slowly, 1 SOPS stretched its lead behind baskets from Jenkins, Gutzman, Palmer and Shirley and led by 11 points with less than two minutes to play. Shepherd drained two 3-pointers in the closing minute, but long after the game was in doubt.
“We got contributions from a lot of players, but really I think we won this on the defensive end,” Owens said. “And, these guys we’re talking about are all over 30. We have to pick the moments when we expend energy. This year, it took some time for us to gel as a team, but we pulled it together later in the season and played our best when it counted.”