Try as they might, the Elma Eagles were never able to dig out of an early hole in falling to the King’s Way Christian Knights 61-53 in the 1A District 4 championship game on Saturday at Castle Rock High School.
The Eagles (13-10) faced a double-digit deficit just a few minutes into the game, rallied to trim the Knights’ lead to just two baskets, but couldn’t string enough field goals together in suffering the loss.
The Knights (15-8) put Elma behind the 8-ball early, jumping out to an 8-0 lead before Eagles sophomore forward AJ Holmes hit a shot from the high post to get Elma on the board 3:30 into the game.
But the relief was only temporary as a few possessions later, Knights senior guard Giovanny Evanson scored and was fouled to extend the lead to 14-2 halfway through the first quarter.
Then, as if a switch was flipped, Elma awoke.
The Eagles ramped up the energy, challenging shots while pounding the boards on both sides of the court, leading to an 8-0 run capped by a Holmes offensive rebound and putback to make it a 14-10 ballgame with just under a minute to go in the first quarter.
“Before the game the message was, ‘don’t let the situation be too big for you,’” Elma head coach Matt Ferrier said. “Calming our nerves for a group of kids where that was the biggest basketball game they’ve ever played in, … to chip away at (the deficit) and get back into it was incredible.”
The game would be a back-and-forth affair from then on, with KWC holding an 8-10 point lead throughout most of the second quarter, with a Holmes jump shot from the free-throw line trimmed the deficit to 28-20 at halftime.
In the third quarter, KWC quickly took a 10-point lead on a Ryan Tyler layup to open the second half, but Elma responded with a three followed by a baseline drive and layup from junior guard Cason Seaberg, trimming the Knights’ lead to 30-25 and forcing a KWC timeout.
But as was the case throughout the game, whenever the Eagles got close, the Knights responded. KWC went on a 6-0 run out of the timeout to extend the lead back to double digits at 36-25 and force an Elma timeout with 4:28 to go in the period.
The Eagles trailed by 11 in the final minute of the quarter before a baseline drive from Seaberg followed by a bucket in the paint from junior forward Carter Studer cut the KWC lead to 40-33 entering the fourth period.
With the score 43-35 after a minute of play in the fourth quarter, King’s Way scored six straight points as Elma went cold from the floor, taking a 49-35 lead with 4:30 left in the game.
The Eagles wouldn’t get back to within 10 points until the final minute on a bucket by senior forward Gibson Cain with 26 seconds left.
Elma sophomore guard Theo Flores hit a three at the buzzer, making the final score 61-53 in favor of King’s Way Christian.
Elma was led by Holmes (19 points, 11 rebounds) and Seaberg (15 points) and shot 36% as a team on 21-0f-59 shooting, including 3 of 22 from the 3-point line (14%), while committing 20 turnovers.
“It’s unfortunate we started out slow, the nerves were there and in all reality, if you look at the field goal-percentages, we didn’t shoot very well tonight,” Ferrier said.
The Eagles defense held Evanson – the Trico League MVP – to just under his league average at 21 points, often frustrating the talented 6-foot-5 standout and his teammates into miscues and turnovers with their high-energy defensive play.
“Cason (Seaberg) did a great job on Evanson. He had to fight for his 21 points,” Ferrier said. “The look on that kid’s face was frustrated and exhausted.”
But Knights junior guard Jaydon Hall picked up the slack, scoring a game-high 24 points — 15 in the second half – mostly by splashing in pull-up jump shots.
“(He) stepped up and knocked down some shots for them,” Ferrier said. “We held their best guy (Evanson) in check, for the most part, and somebody else stepped up for them, so kudos there.”
While the improbable run of Elma – the 1A Evergreen League’s No. 3 seed – to the district-title game didn’t end as the Eagles and their fans may have hoped, Ferrier said his team’s never-quit mentality shows how far it has come over the course of the season.
“It took a year and a half to change the particular culture of our program and our kids wanted to win. The importance of winning shows the growth of where the kids are,” he said. “I know they are disapointed tonight, but their determination to scratch, claw, climb, push, pull and do whatever it was to get back into the basketball game was there.”
Elma received a No. 15 seed for the state tournament and will face No. 10 Seattle Academy in a loser-out regional round game at 10 a.m. on Saturday at Bellevue College.
“Anybody that watches this game film is going to see that we’re ready to fight,” Ferrier said, looking ahead to the state tournament. “We’re ready to go after it and we’re ready to win. We are going to go after it next week.”
King’s Way Christian 16 12 12 21 – 61
Elma 10 10 13 20 – 53
Scoring: KWC – Hall 24, Evanson 21, Duke 6, Tyler 6, Belefski 2, Pisarcyzk 2. Elma – Holmes 19, Seaberg 15, Flores 5, Carter 4, Studer 4, Vessey 3, Cain 3.