A last-second shot by Alex Wendel bailed out the Versailles, negating one of the season’s best individual performances in a thrilling Tigers win over St. Henry.
Versailles – Only in competition can one understand the “madness”. That is, of playing so well for so long – of having an individual performance so spectacular as to be deemed memorable – only to see it come undone in a matter of minutes…and dashed in a fraction of a second.
That’s the synopsis of Friday night’s MAC contest between Versailles (12-2) and St. Henry (7-4), a game that for three quarters saw Eric Rosenbeck’s Redskins have Versailles by the neck – defending, frustrating, scrapping, and winning – only to see it come undone with .06 seconds on the clock when the Tigers’ Alex Wendel, a 6’1″ junior, launched and made a desperation 3-pointer from 24 feet that gave Versailles an improbable 54-51 win.
In terms of justice it negated a once-in-a-lifetime performance by St. Henry senior Mitchel Stammen, who finished with 36 points, making 6 of 10 three-pointers…and who in the end had nothing but doubts about whether he should have done more to contest the shot of Wendel, the shot that actually won the game.
But first, for the opening 16 minutes they traded back and forth, a two-point lead here, a four-point comeback there. St. Henry, typical of MAC basketball, played as solidly on defense as you could ask.
It was rough, physical, and officials Steve Trout, Joe Turner, and Ed Oberlander were exemplary in calling fouls to control it. So exemplary, in fact, that Versailles’ leading scorer, sophomore Justin Ahrens, went to the bench early in the first quarter with two quick calls and was no factor in the first half. He went to the halftime locker room having scored just two points.
Still, Versailles held a 22-20 advantage at the break and had to feel lucky to be close, let alone ahead.
They had missed a ton of point-blank shots at the rim, St. Henry contesting every shot, scrapping for every rebound, determined to pull the shocker in the other team’s gym.
Mitchel Stammen had had an impressive 13 points in the first half, getting to the rim, slashing, driving, and efficient for hitting the wide open looks he got from the Redskins’ patient working of the basketball. A pair of three-pointers from the wing midway through the second quarter was only the overture to his opera.
He came out firing in the third, eclipsing his first half total of 13 with 16 more…three more 3’s, stickbacks on offensive rebounds, drives to the rim, and free throws. Everything he threw up seemed to go in. It staked St. Henry to a 40-33 advantage at the start of the fourth quarter.
But then the ‘madness’ began. Versailles, buoyed a a couple of sloppy St. Henry possession, turned them into buckets. The Redskins, for one reason or another, sagged in their defensive effort. The Tigers got to the rim, to the line, and back into the game for real when at 4:05 of the fourth quarter Justin Ahrens finally found his stroke from three-point range. His rainbow from the left wing gave Versailles a one-point lead…and new life.
“Defensively, we played three quarters of pretty good basketball,” said Eric Rosenbeck afterwards, staring blankly as he spoke of it. “But then in the fourth we gave up 21 points. We have to get more fundamental. It’s cliche’, but it’s true. We have to get more fundamental and stay solid in our matchups. Our guys are doing everything I ask of them, and if we keep doing that we’ll be fine. We gotta’ keep moving forward.”
Well, things did move forward. The two teams reverted to trading leads, and free throws, as the clock wound down.
Time outs were exchanged to gauge strategies.
Exhausted players tried to catch a breath and the energy for one final push.
It came down to 12 seconds and a 51-51 tie, with Versailles in possession of the basketball and a play designed for Justin Ahrens to create something…a shot, a pass, whatever it took to get an open look at the rim. With six seconds and the ball in his hands he drew a double-team and frantically looked for an open teammate. The first he found was Wendel, standing along on the wing, about 24 feet from the basket. Instinctively Ahrens snapped a pass to him and there was no time for indecision. Wendel launched a long, arching shot, that given the circumstances of having overcome such a deficit already, seemed destined to make the moment complete by sealing the game and the win.
Wendel’s shot gently kissed the back iron of the rim and pitched down through the net as the other nine players looked on. His teammates erupted. The St. Henry kids simply hung their heads and headed for the bench and the handshake line.
Afterwards, Mitch Stammen spoke quietly of his 36 points, but more poignantly, of his regret for not being more aggressive in trying to deny Wendel’s game-winning effort.
“It was a good night because I got some shots to fall, but I have to give the credit for that to my teammates,” he shared. “They were getting into the gaps of their zone and kicking it back out to me…some good inside-out looks. It was pretty much a matter of me catching the ball and shooting it. They were the ones doing all the work, getting me the open shots.
“But we shouldn’t have lost the seven-point lead in the fourth quarter. I think we let the atmosphere get to us some. We got a little anxious. I know on a couple of occasions I got beat backdoor and gave up layups. It’s pretty much a matter of us not finishing the game. We pride ourselves on being a fourth quarter team, of locking down on ‘D’, and that just didn’t happen tonight.”
And on Wendel’s open look?
“I think Paul (Stammen) was on him and left him to go to Ahrens on a double-team. When he (Wendel) went up for the shot I was close and thought I could get a piece of the shot, but didn’t want to get a piece of his wrist, too. After the fact I wish I had been more aggressive, stuck my arm out there a little more and taken the chance.”
Still, his body of work for the night drew nothing but praise from his coach.
“He was phenomenal,” said Rosenbeck. “He single-handedly kept us in the game there in the second half. He took it over in the third quarter, and I wish he could be in the locker room right now celebrating his big night with a win and his teammates. He was absolutely awesome.”
If you do the math, he scored exactly 70% of his teams’ points. Jesse Niekamp was next high scorer for St. Henry…with 9.
For Versailles, Justin Ahrens finally got untracked enough in the fourth quarter to join teammate Jared Niekamp with team honors…10 apiece. Alex Wendel, for his heroics, finished with 8.
“Our kids have grown up through some adversity throughout the year,” said Tigers’ coach Scott McEldowney. “They grew up some more tonight. They get down on themselves sometimes when things go wrong and we’ve been down a few times here lately. But they know they’re capable of getting a few big steals and hitting a few big shots to get back into a game, and that’s what happened here tonight. I’m really proud of how they’ve matured.”
And for the ‘moment’ of Friday’s win, none more than Wendel, who quietly, and without fanfare, accepted the congratulations of friends and well-wishers before leaving the gym. Almost shy to talk about his game-saving shot, he made a precious few words count.
“It was designed as a triple screen for Justin, to pop him open somehow,” he began. “And when my man left me to double him he found me open.”
And how far was he out when he received the pass?
“Maybe 24 feet,” he demured, uncomfortable to talk about his moment. “It looked good when it left my hand. It felt great…to get the win and to get the win for my teammates.”
That was it. That was all he had to say. Alex Wendel may never know a bigger moment in sports.
And then, too, concession to the irony of it all.
Mitchel Stammen will never know greater madness.