RENO — "No. 1 seed! No. 1 seed! No. 1 seed!" the Whittell Warriors chanted, already thinking about the state basketball tournament while celebrating with Northern Region championship trophy.
The Warriors' 64-55 win on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 17, over the Mineral County Serpents in the NIAA Class 1A title game tasted especially sweet.
"Last year we played them in zone and got smoked (56-19), so it was kind of sweet revenge," said Whittell senior Corey Huber, who scored 14 points, and hit 7 of 9 free throws in the fourth quarter. "It feels great. We can't cap it off any better before state."
The Warriors didn't press, squeezed the paint, held their own on the boards, hit their open jumpers and slowly frustrated the Serpents and their large contingent in the stands at North Valleys High School.
The teams could actually meet again in a week for the state title.
The Warriors (26-3) earned the top seed from the north and will face Spring Mountain (23-5), of Las Vegas, the No. 2 team from the south, Friday, Feb. 23, at Lawlor Events Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. With a victory, Whittell would play the winner of No. 1 Pahranagat Valley (25-3) and No. 2 Mineral (24-6) on Saturday, Feb. 24.
"Of all the teams going forward, I think we can play any style, like what we did today,” said Whittell head coach Phil Bryant. “We're gonna do what we do, but that's a variety of things."
The Warriors played the Serpents, the Western League champions, twice this season, splitting the results, with both teams winning big on the road.
The rubber match on a neutral court was fierce. After the Warriors rallied from a 20-10 deficit early in the second quarter, the game was close until the team from Tahoe pulled away in the fourth quarter.
Genaro Mena took over the fourth period, bouncing back from losing his head a little in the first half. Bryant took his quick, athletic point guard off the floor early and had a little chat with him.
“He's his own worst enemy sometimes, because he's so hard on himself," Bryant said. "I told him to 'settle down and play your game, or you can sit here and watch the game. And he really stepped up."
Mena scored nine of his team-high 17 points in the final eight minutes. With the game tied at 44 heading into the fourth, Mena hit consecutive contested layups to give the Warriors a 48-44 lead that they would never lose.
"Genaro gets to the rim better than anyone else on our team," Huber said. "When he does that, it opens up the outside shooters. Today, he drove, kicked and the people he passed to hit the 3-pointer."
Huber hit a pair of free throws and Mena followed with baseline 3 off a nice pass from Trent Dingman who had penetrated the Serpent defense.
Mena drove for another basket on the next trip down the court, and with 4 minutes left, Whittell led 55-46.
"It was really intense," Mena said. "I kind of lost my composure early, but the coaches were able to help me get through that. Getting the whole team involved with everything, it helped getting this 'W.' The coaches, they know what they're doing. We know how to play our game and that's we've done all season."
Nic Buchholz gave the Warriors a big lift in the third quarter when he scored seven of his nine points. Buchholz's first basket tied the game at 37. His next tied it at 39. And his next was a 3-point bomb that bounced off the glass to give the Warriors a 42-40 lead. His first basket was tough jumped in the paint that gave Whittell a 28-26 halftime lead.
It was Dingman and Troy Libert that carried Whittell's offense in the first half. Dingman scored nine points in the first half, including a pair of 3s, and Libert added seven points. Libert can score points, but his rebounding stands out. The 6-foot-6 center snags rebounds at rim height, well above others.
The Warriors have won eight straight games and are the only team to beat Mineral County (24-6) in 2018. The rest of the Serpents' losses were in December.
"I’m really proud of the kids and I think it was a huge win because I don't think they have any respect for us," Bryant said. "I think they thought it was a fluke when we beat them down there, and then they buried us at home, I just don't think they respect us. And then they got down and I think they got totally undisciplined. It may not look like it all the time, but we're fairly disciplined. We try to keep a tight reign on them, having my son Matt and Steve (Maltase) with me is kind of like having three head coaches on the bench."
The Warriors beat the Serpents on the neutral court, but it sure sounded like it was a home game for Mineral. Whittell is on winter break. There was no class Friday and kids, and parents, are on vacation for a week.
"I'm proud of our kids. It's just too bad we're on winter break and fans can't be here. It's hard without having the community around us, that hurts us, but we have a great following. But I'm happy, excited, and felt all along like we could win it and we did. You gotta love it."