Sunset boys hoops salts Aloha await at the line
In practice, sometimes toward the end of a long two-hour session, Sunset head coach Todd Sherwood will line his team up along the baseline and handpick a select group of Apollos who have the pleasure of shooting two free throws apiece.
Miss the first and the entire Apollo boys basketball team races to the other end of the court and back. Miss the second and it's more of the same, wind sprints for all. Make the freebies and Sunset gets to rest. If everybody makes their free throws, nobody runs, much to the delight of the players.
The purpose of the drill isn't to punish the Apollos but rather simulate a pressure-packed situation, where something of consequence is riding on whether Sunset can come through in the clutch.
So, with their four-game winning streak hanging in the balance and a vastly improved Aloha club making the Apollos labor, Sunset simply went to the line and stepped up to the magnitude of the moment.
Over the game's final two minutes the Apollos made eight-of-eight free throws at the charity stripe including two big ones from Braeden Sato that gave Sunset a 66-61 lead with 12 seconds left in the fourth. Aloha sophomore Caleb Wilson made a last-gasp three, but Sunset's cushion was enough to pull out the 66-64 win at Aloha High School on Friday.
"A lot of us love those moments and are ready for them," Sunset senior Coleman Newsom. "We practice hard with a lot of energy and try to recreate those situations as best as we can so that when we get them in games we can go down and make all the free throws we need."
"Big players make big plays," Sato said with a smile.
In all, Sunset went 18-for-21 at the free throw line while the Warriors were just 8-for-17, a wide disparity that played a huge role in the ultimate outcome. Aloha made four threes in the fourth quarter to keep Sunset in its sights, but the 11 missed free throws over the span of the first 28 minutes or so of action proved costly. That's not to say the Warriors self-destructed. Senior Trey Hornbuckle played like a first-team all-Metro power forward, scoring a game-high 18 points to go along with 10 rebounds, 2 blocks and sound backline defense around the rim. Sophomore southpaw Jamall Harris looks like a potential star, a burly shooting guard with flair, handles and a sweet outside shot. Senior Matthew Powers played above the rim and put home an important fourth quarter three. Timmy Dennis ran the show and made a huge defensive steal late in the fourth when Aloha trailed by just three.
"We've had some games where we didn't punch back at all, so this was a step for us," Hornbuckle said. "You can't get punched that many times without fighting back. Sunset is good, but in my opinion, we're better. We just realized that a little too late. We had some young people step up. The movement and spacing on offense were much better this game than it has been all year. We have everything we need, we just have to believe we can win."
Hornbuckle said Aloha's demise came not at the line, but on the glass, where Sunset made a living tipping home offensive putbacks, getting second chances and racking up fouls on the Warriors that led to the free throw procession. Newsom, specifically, was effective, using his football physicality to snatch both defensive and offensive boards and cash them in for paint points. Sato, Colby King and Tyler Sumner were able to get in the lane off dribble penetration and put up shots that either fell through the net or found the hands of a teammate on the boards.
"They were way more physical than us down low," Hornbuckle said. "They got a lot of extra shots that we should have rebounded. We have to be stronger. We need to work on free throws, we've struggled with those the whole year, but that's not why we lost this game. Sunset had the will and wanted it more than us. In Metro, that's what it comes down to, who wants it more."
When the game's tension escalated and the fourth quarter clock dwindled below the minute mark, Sunset was steady, ready and willing to toe the free throw line, knowing they've dealt with similar repercussions. Senior Austin Holt made two free throws, the first of which was in a one-and-one situation at the line with 1:54 to go in the fourth that gave Sunset a 60-54 lead.
The final 90 seconds of the fourth were fairly emblematic of the game as a whole: a contest played with a frenetic up-and-down pace with both teams trying to speed each other up and create havoc with pressure and differing full court defenses. Trailing Sunset 62-59 with about a minute left in the fourth Dennis tipped an Apollo cross-court pass and saved it from going out of bounds by athletically wrapping it behind his back to Cobi Wilson. Still down three, Dennis got a decent look at a stepped into three, but his hoist from the right wing bounced off the back rim. Newsom blocked out and grabbed the defensive board as Aloha was forced to foul. Then the senior made two free throws to make it 62-59 with 45 seconds left.
Aloha got a great look on the next trip down, patiently moving the inside out until it was shuttled to Wilson in the right corner. Wilson lifted a three that looked online but was a tad too long. Sunset again grabbed the defensive board and milked a few extra seconds off the clock.
And when Sunset senior guard Tyler Sumner was eventually fouled he swished both free throws at the charity stripe to extend Sunset's lead to 64-59 with 11.8 seconds to go. After Dennis' spectacular steal, Sunset didn't turn the ball over on its subsequent three trips down the court, protecting the rock, taking time off the clock with heady passing and smart decisions. Wilson's last-second NBA-range three aside, Sunset got the crucial stops over the final minute of play forcing Aloha to swing the ball multiple times before getting off shots that ultimately went begging off the rim.
"Most Metro Leagues games are gonna be close, so you have to be willing to go in there and fight," Hornbuckle said. "It's that simple. These games are tough and Sunset is gonna be tough."
Wilson's potential game-tying three that back-rimmed three from the corner on the Aloha's second-to-last possession came only after the Warriors ran 30 precious seconds off the clock, thanks to Sunset's swarming man-to-man defense.
"It came down to energy," Newsom said. "Throughout the game we made a lot of big plays on defense, getting a lot of turnovers and executed down the stretch. Coach Sherwood gave us a really good strategy during our timeouts to go out there and get back to executing."
Sunset, who at one point this year lost six straight games, has now won five consecutive contests, four within the Metro League. As it currently stands the Apollos are in sole possession of fourth place in Metro with a huge home game against Beaverton looming on Tuesday. Three of Sunset's losses have come by four points or less. Going into the second round of Metro, few teams are as hot as the Apollos, who shook off the slow start to the season and seem to be back on track. The early struggles, Newsom said, forced some of Sunset's core players, both young and old to "grow up" a little bit and adjust to the varsity level quickly. The team's chemistry has come around as a result.
"We've figured out how to play with each other and there's a lot more trust going around," Newsom said. "People are picking up on each other's strengths and we're playing off of each other. Coach Sherwood has done a really good job of getting the younger, inexperienced guys ready and that's really paid off for us."
Hornbuckle is one of the few seniors in the conference who have started all four seasons at the varsity level, a rare feat for any competitor, let alone a 6-foot-3 post who was thrown into the snake pit as a freshman. He's morphed from a soft-spoken role player feeding Steven Boswell on the block into Aloha's leading role as a senior, the go-to guy on a young team. Against Sunset, Hornbuckle scored 10 straight points in the second quarter and hammered inside for two to make it a one-possession game with 20 seconds left in the fourth.
"I've definitely had to come out with a new outlook and have the ball in my hands more and shoot the ball more," Hornbuckle said. "Even if it's a force, it's a shot I gotta take. It's better than some of the shots we get elsewhere. I love it. It's been four years in the making."
Newsom finished the game with a team-high 16 points. Sato added 15 including seven-of-eight at the free throw line and King chipped in eight. Harris had 13 for Aloha. Powers and Turner each had eight points apiece and Dennis added seven.