GILLETTE — When the buzzer sounded at the Pronghorn Center Thursday afternoon, heads sunk on the Sheridan College sideline — a mixture of sadness and complete exhaustion.
The Generals came back from 25 points down before falling 93-87 to Laramie County Community College in the second round of the Region IX Tournament, putting an end to the 2016-17 season.
Any energy the players had left after the massive comeback shifted directly toward the realization that the season was over. For five sophomores, it was the final game in a Sheridan College jersey.
After an abysmal first half where Sheridan scored just 23 points — the team’s worst half of the season — it appeared as if the Generals were in for a long night against the Region IX South’s top seed. Sheridan shot just 32 percent from the field in the opening half; they shot just three free throws, turned the ball over 10 times and went 0 for 8 from 3-point range.
The Golden Eagles took a 33-23 lead into the locker room.
“They set the tone,” Sheridan head coach Matt Hammer said of Laramie County. “We didn’t come out as the aggressor, and in tournament time, usually the team that’s the most aggressive wins.”
Luckily for the Sheridan team, the slow start was nothing new.
In the four games before Thursday’s matchup with LCCC, the Generals averaged just 25 points in the first half, with a 28-point half against Northwest College the highest of that stretch. Sheridan won three of those four games.
So when Laramie County took a 69-44 lead with 8:30 left to play, the team in the black jerseys may have been the only one still expecting a close game.
Slowly and methodically, though, the belief crept into the bleachers. The handful of fans that made the afternoon commute to Gillette absorbed the energy that was seeping out of the players on the court in front of them.
When Jeremiah Brown drained a 3-pointer at the top of the key with seven minutes left, the fans leapt to their feet as if it was a game-tying shot; the Generals still trailed 69-54.
But the fans could sense it. Sheridan became the aggressor, and a full-court press put the Golden Eagles in situations they hadn’t been in all game. The Generals forced turnovers and missed shots and turned them into baskets at the other end.
“We forced them to play a little faster than they wanted to play,” Hammer said. “And then it was just capitalizing. We missed quite a few layups early on, but in the second half, guys were finishing and making plays.”
The attacks on the basket opened up the outside for Sheridan’s sharpshooter Ladan Ricketts. Ricketts knocked down a couple of 3-pointers to cut the deficit to 12, and two Channel Banks free throws cut it to 10 with 3:12 left to play.
Eleven seconds later, Ricketts drained another 3 and drew a foul, making it a single-digit deficit for the first time since midway through the first half.
But Sheridan wasn’t done. An and-1 putback from Xavier Jackson cut it to 8; a Dmonte Harris 3-pointer made it 6; a Jackson floater made it an 86-82 game with 45 seconds remaining.
Then, the aggression backfired.
Banks was called for an offensive foul on a baseline drive. A possession later, Ricketts laid a hard screen to clear space for a teammate, but it was whistled for being illegal.
The Golden Eagles knocked down free throws, and the miraculous comeback was stopped dead in its tracks.
“It’s a killer,” Hammer said of the two offensive foul calls. “You come back from 25 points, and you have two calls that pretty much end the comeback, and they’re two calls that early in the game would have been blocks.
“But that’s the way it is. These refs have jitters just like players do when they get in these tournaments.”
But Hammer admitted that the late plays wouldn’t have been an issue had his team not played so poorly for the first 30 minutes, something that became all too common for the Generals this season.
The Generals still ended the season with a 23-9 record, the best in Hammer’s short tenure as SC coach. Depending on what the recruiting class looks like, Sheridan could be right back in the thick of the Region IX Tournament a year from now.
Freshmen Banks, Harris and Rickett all return next season. They were three of Sheridan’s four players in double figures Thursday — Ricketts finished with 11; Banks and Harris scored 16 and 19, respectively, off the bench.
Jackson led the Generals with 21 points.
Sheridan College………………..23 64 — 87
Laramie County CC…………….33 60 — 93
Sheridan — Jackson 21, Harris 19, Banks 16, Ricketts 11, Araujo 7, Dieng 6, Sherrell 4, Brown 3
Laramie County — Heinzi 22, Anderson 17, Meads 16, Wyche 13, Ayodele 12, Oliver 11, Wright 2
Sheridan 44 (Jackson 7); Laramie County 43 (three with 8)
Sheridan 15 (Araujo, Banks 4); Laramie County 13 (Wyche 7)