In recent weeks I’ve covered the state swimming and diving finals, a sectional gymnastics meet,* and a few hoops game here and there. Saturday night, though, I may have covered the perfect game. Save this one for lunch or a coffee break; it will take a while to get through.

(Awful. I forgot from last year how tedious gymnastics meets are because of all the dead time between rotations. For some reason things were exceptionally slow Friday night. There was still a girl on the balance beam at 10:00 pm. The official results were handed to us poor press schleps at 10:25, which gave me less than 20 minutes to put something together. Not great for the girls who worked hard to advance to regionals but got no coverage in the paper because I had no time to fight the crowds and interview them.)

Saturday night I traveled down to my old favorite, EHS, to watch the boys team try to win their first sectional title in 37 years. The boys team is actually pretty solid this year, winning seven-straight coming into the sectional final. Friday night, they came from 14 down in the second half of their semifinal to win on a free throw with two seconds left.

I arrived at the school about 45 minutes early, figuring there would be a slightly bigger crowd than normal. I was surprised at how big the crowd was. I parked a couple blocks from the school and on my walk it seemed like the whole town was strolling with me. When I walked up to the school, there was a line around the gym. Now this was the Indiana high school basketball experience I had long heard about.

EHS was playing the #11 team in class 1A, IHS, a school from Indianapolis. At first glance this seemed to be the classic clash of cultures that the all comers tournament was famous for. IHS had an almost entirely black roster. EHS was all white. Despite the similarities in enrollment, it was easy to imagine this was Milan vs. Muncie Central or Crispus Attucks.

By the time the game started, the gym was almost completely packed. The home students were loud. There was a fantastic energy in the air.

EHS began the game in a 2-3 zone, and at first IHS was content to shoot over it. That worked out ok, as they hit 4-9 threes in the first quarter to take a two-point lead into the second quarter.

In the second, IHS began attacking the zone and got open jumpers from the free throw line and then passes to cutters along the baseline. But EHS hung in there, took care of the ball, and were down by only six at the half.

Early in the third period, IHS began to pull away. The lead was up to 10 a minute into the quarter. EHS got stingy on defense, converted on offense, and slowly chipped away at the lead. With 2:00 remaining, an IHS player was T’ed up for arguing with an official. EHS hit both free throws and got a turn-around jumper from their center on the following possession. The teams went to the fourth quarter separated by just two points.

Surprisingly, EHS came out of their zone in the fourth. For some reason, instead of exploiting their quickness advantage, IHS began turning the ball over. They had five turnovers through the first three quarters. They turned it over five times in the fourth quarter alone.

With four minutes left, IHS got called for their seventh foul of the half and EHS began shooting free throws. Over the next four minutes, EHS scored 13 straight points from the line, missing only two along the way. They took their first lead of the game with 3:00 to play. Over that final stretch, the teams were either tied or exchanged the lead seven times. At one point, the EHS center took a feed, spun towards the basket, put it in and was fouled. When the referee ruled that the foul was on the ground, a fan near the play threw his hat onto the floor. He was ejected and that was a sign of things to come.

EHS got the lead up to four at one point, but IHS stormed back and took the lead on a three pointer with under a minute to play.

On the next possession, EHS missed a shot, the rebound went long, IHS gathered it and sent a long outlet pass to a guard who had a clear path to the basket. An EHS player fouled him to prevent the layup. When the official who blew the whistle crossed his arms, indicating an intentional foul, the gym went crazy. The EHS coach had to be restrained from going after the ref. His assistant nearly got T’ed up a moment later. Boos rained down on the court. The IHS player who had been T’ed up earlier marched around the court with his fingers pulling on his jersey displaying his school’s name to the fans. I was screened from the foul, but after the game our photographer told me he thought it was a poor call, as the EHS player had made an attempt to get the ball. Whatever, damage done. A one point lead, two shots and the ball with 30 seconds to play. Things looked bleak for EHS.

The IHS player clanked the first free throw. The crowd went crazy. I saw movement at center court and noticed the player who had taunting the crowd had crossed the midcourt line and was again pulling on his jersey, saying something to the home fans. I heard a whistle and looked to see a referee pointing at that player and signaling a technical. Hysteria in the gym as the crowd realized what was going on. Neither the IHS player nor his coaches understood what had happened at first. When they did, their coach went insane. His assistants and players had to force him back to the bench at least twice. Their athletic director was pointing at fans in the crowd as if they had prompted his player’s actions. The small group of IHS fans were ballistic, screaming at the refs. One had to be restrained from going on the court. Finally the offending player realized he was being ejected for being T’ed twice. Terrific drama!

The referees finally got things under control and IHS shot their second free throw, hitting this one, to take a two-point lead. Now it was EHS’ turn. Their point guard hit one of two, his miss kept him from being a perfect 10-10 from the line, to cut it back to one. I never heard what the ruling was, but either the technical overruled the intentional foul, or it was a jump ball and EHS had the possession arrow, but it was they who took possession rather than IHS. Hope.

They got the ball in, looked inside, but couldn’t get a good look for their center. The ball swung to a forward in the corner. He got a step on his defender, drove the baseline, and put up a floater from about five feet. It was long, but an EHS player was there to tip it. His tip rimmed out and both he and the EHS center battled for the rebound. For a moment, it looked like they might knock the ball out of bounds and lose possession. But the center, who is 6’8”, grabbed it and put up a soft jumper that splashed through the net with 4.2 seconds to play.

Hysteria in the gym! It had been a loud fourth quarter already, but this was the proverbial play that blew the roof off the building.

IHS still had a chance, though. They got the ball in, drove all the way down court and put up a contested shot from about 16 feet. It was swatted away, the buzzer sounded, and the EHS players and crowd went crazy. Meanwhile the IHS coach screamed at the referees and then at the EHS athletic director. I have no idea what happened on the far sideline before the second technical, but the IHS staff was convinced that someone in the crowd had done something.

The teams shook hands, EHS accepted their championship trophy, and then the crowd rushed the floor. I waited a few minutes before I made my way down. It was a great scene. I found our photographer on the floor and we stood at the edge taking it all in. Players were crying, hugging, and smiling in joy. Their friends and family were hugging them and slapping them on their backs. As the trophy was passed from player-to-player, family members snapped pictures. When I finally decided to start talking to players, they all seemed in shock. Each said it was “great” and “awesome” and “amazing.” The coach, who is fairly young, was beside himself in pride.

When I left, roughly 30 minutes after the final buzzer, the floor was still jammed with people milling about, extending the moment, and there was still one net that needed to be clipped.

Before I left home that afternoon I joked with S. that this was one of the most important nights in the town’s history and I was the one who got to record it for history. To be honest, though, I was a little nervous before the game. This was a big deal. The school had gone over a decade without winning a sectional in any sport before their softball team won one last spring. The volleyball team won one in the fall. Things were getting better, but remember that this is the school that has also won a single football game in seven years. Those sectional titles were nice, but for the boys basketball team to win one was a moment that truly will go down in the town’s history. The 2010 team will join three others in school history that have made it out of sectionals. I was more nervous for the kids than myself. If they won, the story would write itself. Fortunately, they came through. I’m honored that I was there to record it.

It was a fantastic night. There was some discomfort because of the racial angle of some of the late game controversy. All three referees were white. I have no idea where they were from, and they could easily have been from Indy and be more familiar with IHS than EHS. IHS was called for 11 more fouls than EHS. I think EHS got away with a little more, but the IHS players were hacks and most of the calls were deserved, from my perspective.

Still, I think most of the drama was more about the stakes of the game than the race of the players. Or at least I hope that’s the case.

The girls sectional game I did last month that went down to the final shot was a great game. I think this beat that, though, as the most entertaining and exciting game I’ve ever covered.