Levi Sage had been counting the days, the hours, the minutes and the seconds leading up to his first basketball game this season for the Fort Osage Indians.
The senior guard underwent shoulder surgery Sept. 26, 2017, and he knew his time would come, but never in his wildest dreams could he imagine a return like the one he experienced in Tuesday night’s 62-60 win over Winnetonka.
The Indians ran off to a 20-2 first-quarter lead and held a comfortable 38-17 advantage at halftime.
Then, the Griffins became a comeback that had the standing-room-only crowd biting their nails and wiping the sweat from their brow.
The Griffins, with a wild flurry of scoring, tied the game at 60-all when Justin Park hit one of two free throws with 11 seconds left.
On the Indians’ ensuing inbounds play, a midcourt pass was overthrown, and Sage came out of nowhere to scoop up the loose ball, drive to the basket and hit the game-winning layup.
But there were still 6.5 seconds left on the clock, and the Indians managed to hold their own under the Winnetonka basket as they applied enough pressure to force three missed layups in the closing seconds.
When the final buzzer sounded, Sage was mobbed by his teammates, his friends, Indians fans and anyone else who happened to be in the Fort Osage gymnasium.
“Wow, talk about being in the right place at the right time,” Fort Osage coach Josh Wilson said after the victory that gave his team a 5-9 record. “What a story. … Since his surgery, Levi has been at every practice – unless he was going to rehab.
“He’s been the loudest, most supportive guy on the bench, and for him to come in and do what he did tonight is pretty unbelievable. I know I’ll never forget seeing him get that ball and hit that layup – whoa!”
After he greeted friends and family members, the shell-shocked Sage talked about the biggest play of his life.
“I feel like I’m floating – floating 10 feet above the ground – I’ve never felt like this before and it feels pretty good,” said Sage, who also hit a big 3-point basket in the final minutes to keep the Griffins at bay.
“We have a saying, ‘Never give up,’ and that’s why I was able to get to that ball. I will never give up. I would have done anything to help us win this game. All I thought about since my surgery was coming back and playing, but I never could have dreamed of a night like this.”
Sage injured the shoulder playing competitive ball in the summer, and knew that surgery would force him to miss some of his senior season.
“But the doctor told me if I worked hard, I could make it back, and I never worked harder in my life,” said Sage, who finished with six points. “When I got to the ball, I knew I could make it to the basket.”
He outran two Griffin defenders and deftly rolled the ball off his fingertips into the basket.
“Levi was the man tonight,” said teammate Dez Griswold, who hit two free throws with 41 seconds to make it 60-56.
But Winnetonka’s Racine Williams banked in a 3-pointer from long range, setting the stage for Park to tie it at 60.
“We never should have lost that big lead we had,” added Griswold, who led the Indians with 17 points, “but at least it gave Levi the chance to win the game for us.”
Xavier Kahube, who scored eight of his 16 points in the first quarter, agreed with Griswold.
“This was Levi’s night, but we should have won by a lot more than two points,” Kahube said. “But at least we won. Thank goodness Levi hit that layup. Man, he scored when we needed it the most.”
Bol Tong, the Griffins 6-foot-7 center, led Winnetonka with 16 points.