The Cooper boys basketball team was able to bounce back from a 35-27 halftime deficit to defeat Armstrong 82-74 to open the Section 6AAAA tournament March 15.
“This is definitely tough, losing to a rival team,” Thompson said. “There are definitely a lot of emotions flowing right now, so we have to see what went wrong and correct that for next year.”
Beijan Newbern scored 19 points to lead the Hawks, while Nathan Hill added 18 and Jalen Justice scored 12. Race Thompson led Armstrong with 33 points.
Cooper was ranked as the section’s sixth seed going into the tournament, a fact that became motivation for the Hawks as they opened the tournament.
“A lot of people didn’t give us a chance to win tonight,” Cooper head boys basketball coach Broderick Powell said. “Being the sixth seed, I didn’t think we should have been the sixth seed, coming in this game everyone thought [Armstrong] would run us out of this gym.
“I want everyone to know that we have guys that can play. They’re just young and they make young mistakes.”
“Going into this one we were told it’s 0-0 coming out and it was anybody’s game,” Newbern said. “We just tried to jump on them early, get a quick lead and Coach said if we did that and played to our potential, then we would get the W, and that’s what we did.”
Cooper opened the game on an 4-0 run, but Armstrong responded by scoring the next eight points. Armstrong’s Isaiah Miller scored nine points as the Falcons built a 25-15 lead midway through the first half, and that momentum extended through the end of the first half.
Cooper took the 10-minute halftime period to regroup, and Powell used that time to remind his team of what it was playing for.
“I’m not going to give away any secrets, but there was a lot of yelling going around from Coach talking about how we weren’t playing how we normally play,” Newbern said. “This could have been [senior Damien Gordon’s] last game, and we wanted to give it our all.
“We don’t want to send him to SMSU on a bad streak.”
Powell said he never lost faith in his group.
“Even when they were up 10 I knew we just needed to play,” Powell said. “I told them that if they got stops and kept playing, we would get back in the game.
“We had some mental breakdowns, got into a little foul trouble, but we stuck to the game plan and they played.”
Cooper then began the second half on a strong run, as the Hawks took a 49-48 lead with 11:10 left in the game on a three-pointer by Onte Burns. Armstrong was able to take the lead on two Thompson free throws, but Cooper eventually re-captured the lead on a Justice three.
Justice, who, along with other teammates, missed a fair amount of shots in the opening half, was encouraged by Powell to continue taking shots.
“Before we left Cooper we told them that if what they do doesn’t work out, how are you going to get it to work out if you don’t keep shooting,” Powell said. “I told them they just have to shoot and I don’t care if they miss, they’re good wide-open shots and they’re going to fall.
“Jalen hit some shots in the second half and he really stepped up for us.”
From that point on, the game was all Cooper.
Cooper made nine three-pointers in the second half and key threes, as well as clutch free throws, guided the Hawks to the win.
“It just took maximum effort and we all did what we were supposed to do,” Powell said. “We stuck to the game plan and we all believed in each other.
“They actually played for each other, looked for each other and they fed off each other.”
Powell said making key shots was the difference in the second half.
“We’re a different team when we’re making shots,” Powell said. “When we don’t make shots we’re not in our rhythm, which makes it difficult, but when we make shots things become a lot easier for us.”
While Armstrong’s season ended earlier than it hoped, the Falcons were still able to piece together an impressive season.
The Falcons led the Northwest Suburban Conference-West Division at one point, and they ended the year with an 18-9 overall record.
“The worst part isn’t losing the game, the worst part is not being able to coach them anymore,” Miller said. “They were fun to be around, fun at practice, they loved basketball with a passion and they made a name for themselves.
“Everywhere we went people were talking about us.”
The loss to Cooper ended the Armstrong careers of six seniors: Isaiah Rollins, Davonte Saeed-El, Gabe Hostetler, Camron Draper, Calvin Green and Blake Williams.
“Since their sophomore year [our seniors] have made steady improvement,” Miller said. “They won 20 games as sophomores and 20 games at JV, but they had to wait for their chance to shine.
“I’m going to miss them a lot.”
Hostetler said that, while he wishes the season could have been extended, he was proud of what the team accomplished during the 2016-17 season.
“[Being a Falcon] has been an honor,” Hostetler said. “I love my teammates and I love the experiences I have had here.
“We should have had a state run this year, but it didn’t happen for us. I’m proud of the men we have become.”
Rollins said he will always look back fondly on his Armstrong career.
“My time here has been great and I have made a lot of memories in this gym,” Rollins said. “I have made friends, made brothers and I wouldn’t trade it for any other program.”
For Thompson, Miller and the team’s other returners, the Falcons know they must work hard during the offseason in order to ensure a lengthy playoff stay next season.
“I’m going to have them in the gym and they’re going to have me in the gym all summer,” Thompson said. “We’re going to make each other better so we can go on to state next year.”
With the win over Armstrong Cooper advanced to the semifinal round to take on Hopkins March 11.
Despite losing 91-44 to the Royals earlier this season, Cooper was confident in its chances heading into the game.
“Armstrong being a rival, this win gives us a lot of confidence,” Newbern said. “Coming in, nobody thought we could win and we showed them up, so now we have a big one against Hopkins, so we should be ready.”
Powell said as long as his team can stick to the game plan, anything can happen.
“For us it’s all about being able to go in and stick to our game plan,” Powell said. “Our game plan is going to be different, because they have a lot of guys that can put the ball in the basket.
“We have a lot of work cut out for us, so we just have to come in, work the game plan and we will give ourselves a chance.”
The Hawks got off to a slow start against Hopkins March 11, and eventually fell 88-55 to the section’s second seed.
Newbern led the Hawks with 16 points, while Gordon added 11.
Cooper ended the season with a 13-13 overall record.
Contact Chris Chesky at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @MNSunSports or @SunSportsChris.