Thunder Mountain celebrates their 48-45 overtime win against the Service Cougars in a semifinal at the 2024 ASAA March Madness Alaska 4A Boys Basketball State Championships on Friday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center. The Falcons will play East Anchorage for the state championship Saturday. (Klas Stolpe / For the Juneau Empire)

Thunder Mountain celebrates their 48-45 overtime win against the Service Cougars in a semifinal at the 2024 ASAA March Madness Alaska 4A Boys Basketball State Championships on Friday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center. The Falcons will play East Anchorage for the state championship Saturday. (Klas Stolpe / For the Juneau Empire)

Thunder Mountain boys defeat Service, will play top-ranked East Anchorage for state title Saturday

Sixth-ranked Falcons score second upset of tournament, defeating second-ranked Cougars 48-45 in OT.

Thunder Mountain High School’s last official road trip finally has a destination: the title game of the 2024 ASAA March Madness Alaska 4A Boys Basketball State Championships on Saturday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center.

The sixth-ranked Falcons (21-9) boys basketball team defeated the second-ranked Service Cougars 48-45 in overtime on Friday, their second overtime game in as many outings in this year’s tournament (TMHS beat West Valley 53-51 on Wednesday).

On a college court in front of packed seating the Falcons played like scholarship athletes.

“You know they did,” TMHS coach John Blasco said. “A little nervous going from the Aux gym (Wednesday) down to the main floor. I had my guys sitting courtside just so they could get a feel for the court but, man, as soon as you are on the court it is a whole different lighting so we tried to stay focused during warmups.”

Thunder Mountain senior Samuel Lockhart (14) gets a shot off over Service seniors Mackeenan Morgan (5) and Toby Howard (35) during the Falcons 48-45 overtime win against the Cougars in a semifinal at the 2024 ASAA March Madness Alaska 4A Boys Basketball State Championships on Friday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center. (Klas Stolpe / For the Juneau Empire)

Thunder Mountain senior Samuel Lockhart (14) gets a shot off over Service seniors Mackeenan Morgan (5) and Toby Howard (35) during the Falcons 48-45 overtime win against the Cougars in a semifinal at the 2024 ASAA March Madness Alaska 4A Boys Basketball State Championships on Friday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center. (Klas Stolpe / For the Juneau Empire)

Trailing 44-42 in overtime TMHS senior Kasen Ludeman ripped a rebound and passed ahead to classmate Thomas Baxter who scored on a reverse layup to tie the game.

After a Service free throw by senior Mackeenan Morgan with 1:34 remaining that fouled out Falcons senior sharpshooter Samuel Lockhart, Baxter drove hard and was fouled, sinking both free throws for a 46-45 lead with 55 seconds left.

The TMHS defense forced Service into a turnover and Ludeman put a nice pass into senior James Polasky with 27 seconds left for 48-45.

The Falcons then defended the Cougars without fouling on four consecutive shots, including a huge block by senior James Polasky who had to leave Service 6’ 7” all-state junior William Toby Howard to stop a drive by Morgan. The blocked shot put Service into a scramble and the buzzer sounded.

“I don’t know I was pretty scared of the dump off to Toby (Howard) to be honest,” Polasky said. “But he just went up with it and I blocked it, so…I don’t know…I don’t even know what to say right now.”

TMHS barely escaped the fourth quarter.

Service’s Howard hit a free throw for a 41-39 lead with 46.8 seconds remaining, but he missed the second shot and TMHS’ Ludeman secured the rebound and fed classmate Lance Nierra who was fouled. Nierra hit one of two free throws to close to 41-40.

With 19 seconds remaining the Falcons fouled directly out of a timeout to assure they would get a touch on the ball.

Thunder Mountain senior Thomas Baxter (33) is hit on a shot by Service sophomore Leyton Lockard (24) during the Falcons 48-45 overtime win against the Cougars in a semifinal at the 2024 ASAA March Madness Alaska 4A Boys Basketball State Championships on Friday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center. (Klas Stolpe / For the Juneau Empire)

Thunder Mountain senior Thomas Baxter (33) is hit on a shot by Service sophomore Leyton Lockard (24) during the Falcons 48-45 overtime win against the Cougars in a semifinal at the 2024 ASAA March Madness Alaska 4A Boys Basketball State Championships on Friday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center. (Klas Stolpe / For the Juneau Empire)

Service missed both free throws and Ludeman saved the possession with a rebound. The Falcons could not score and fouled Service sophomore Leyton Lockard who made the second of two shots for a 42-40 lead with 1.5 seconds remaining.

The Falcons’ Ludeman took the ball out of bounds, throwing a length of the court pass to Baxter who was fouled on the reception. Baxter calmly sank both shots to send the game to extra minutes.

“I may have thrown a good pass to get us to the ‘chip,’ but the T. Baxter hitting those free throws was everything man,” Ludeman said. “He didn’t miss one free throw, that was all I could ask for from my teammates.”

Service’s game plan from the start was to body, follow, grab and hold Lockhart wherever he went on the court. In short, top defense.

“I had an off game,” Lockhart said. “I knew I would kind of be the focal point of their defense so I said my teammates are going to have a night. I don’t need to score, I don’t care if I score, my teammates got my back and they are going to go win it for us. That means a lot that they were able to step up. Fouling out I was like ‘this isn’t my night, this is Thomas’ night, he is going to take over and give us the win.’ I trusted him 100% and the team. Tough defense is nothing I haven’t dealt with before, you know, Alwen Carillo and the Juneau boys.”

In a key stretch at the start of the fourth quarter with Service up 34-32, Lockhart had two steals, Polasky a steal, and Nierra and TJ Guevarra a steal to keep up with Service and bring the score to 40-36.

“We have so many offensive weapons on our team that my role is just to play defense and get my teammates looks,” Nierra said. “Looks for Sams, James and T-Bax, you know I think those three guys are top-three scorers in the state for sure. And we all, like TJ too, feed them the ball, we get them looks and they just convert for us, and I just do my part and play defense.”

Baxter would drain a shot past the arc to bring the Falcons to within 40-39 with 1:40 left in the fourth.

Baxter would spend the game being knocked to the floor on drives, but the Falcons kept his head up.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” a jubilant Baxter said after the game as cheerleaders, teammates and television interviewers swarmed around him. “The emotions are crazy. I know the guys are happy but even when we were down we were confident in each other. We love each other. We’re brothers, we’re friends and we prayed before the game that we would just go out there and play with confidence and play hard for the people back home and the people that came to watch us, our families. And we never let up, even in overtime. We’re humble and we stay calm and confident and it really pulled through for us.”

Thunder Mountain senior James Polasky (24) blocks a last second shot attempt by Service senior Mackeenan Morgan (5) during the Falcons 48-45 overtime win against the Cougars in a semifinal at the 2024 ASAA March Madness Alaska 4A Boys Basketball State Championships on Friday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center. (Klas Stolpe / For the Juneau Empire)

Thunder Mountain senior James Polasky (24) blocks a last second shot attempt by Service senior Mackeenan Morgan (5) during the Falcons 48-45 overtime win against the Cougars in a semifinal at the 2024 ASAA March Madness Alaska 4A Boys Basketball State Championships on Friday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center. (Klas Stolpe / For the Juneau Empire)

Baxter received Player of the Game honors for his 23 points, six rebounds, one steal and one assist night.

“I can’t even explain it,” he said. “Emotions, everything is still…still…I don’t know. I’m still feeling it all.”

Baxter noted their next opponent, East Anchorage (26-1), on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. East beat Monroe (21-6) 45-39 in the second semifinal.

“We are going to go up against one of the top teams in the state,” he said. “We’ve got to stay humble. We have a lot of stuff to work on. We didn’t play perfect tonight. We wished we could of, but we didn’t. We made some mistakes and we can lock in on those things and play better tomorrow. I’m just hoping to keep the guys confident and let them know that we can do it.”

Service led 15-11 after the first quarter with the Falcons’ Baxter scoring eight points and Ludeman a three-pointer.

“You could tell the nerves early,” Blasco said. “Not a lot of shots were going down early and we just kept grinding and telling them we have to attack that rim because the lighting and depth perception is hard in a big arena.”

Lockhart buried a shot past the arc to open the second quarter and followed that with a basket off a Nierra steal to close to 17-16 and end the period on an 8-6 run for a 24-23 lead at the half.

Service opened the third quarter going up 29-24 until Baxter scored and Nierra answered another Service score to trail 31-28. The Falcons would close the period to 34-32 on a Nierra basket and two Baxter free throws.

“Our defense is in our senior leadership,” Blasco said. “They’ve seen a lot and experienced a lot on the court together. They’ve put a lot of hours in practice for the moments that come and they are ready for them. I can’t believe we are going to the championship game. We just kept it close. You have to keep it close. Our defense and our rebounding were key. The fact that we were able to hold them in the 40s is huge because we didn’t have a great offensive night. All the respect in the world to that Service program, they played tremendous defense on Sam, he didn’t get an easy look at all. We had to work for every single basket. It was a grind out there against those guys.”

Lockhart finished the game with nine points (5 RB, 2 ST, 1 AST), Nierra seven (2 AST), Ludeman five (3 RB, 2 STL), Polasky four (5 RB, 1 AST), Guevarra (2 RB, 1 STL).

TMHS hit 17-43 from the field (13/28 from 2pt, 4/15 from 3pt) and 10-15 from the charity stripe. The Falcons had 22 rebounds and 12 turnovers.

Service hit 17-52 from the field (12/35 from 2pt, 5/17 from 3pt) and 6-12 from the line.

Howard led the Cougars with 21 points (4 RB, 4 STL, 1 AST) and was also Player of the Game. Junior Logan Zadra scored six points, senior Jonathan Tautua five, senior Mackeenan Morgan and sophomore Leyton Lockard four apiece, junior Mason Balmes three and senior Daeshaun Dillard two.

TMHS had lost to Service 63-60 in the Ice Jam Tournament at West Valley at the end of January. Now the Falcons have sent the Cougars to third/fifth-place game at 10:30 a.m. against Monroe.

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