With 1:33 left in the fourth quarter of a Class 4 District 13 semifinal game against arch rival Grain Valley, and his Oak Grove Panthers trailing 51-46, Jaxon Althaus turned to his lifelong friend and teammate Kenton Wilhoit and said, “We can’t lose this game. This can’t be the way our season ends.”
It didn’t end with a loss, as Althaus finished with a game-high 23 points, hit eight consecutive fourth-quarter free throws and led the Panthers to a dramatic 57-51 come-from-behind victory and a berth in Friday’s championship game.
The 6-foot-3 senior forward turned in a performance Panther fans will be talking about for months as he grabbed 11 rebounds and added seven steals.
The heroic comeback began moments after Althaus made that comment as he picked Grain Valley guard Andru Garrett’s pocket at midcourt.
Althaus and Garrett went tumbling into the Panthers’ bench and the bleachers, and the referees whistled Garrett for a technical foul.
It was also the Eagles’ seventh foul of the half. Althaus, who played the second half with a brace on his right (shooting) thumb after suffering a jammed digit on an attempted block of an Ethan Macoubrie stuff in the first half, went to the line.
“That is our goal,” Althaus said, referring to the goal where he made the four free throws. “Kenton and I spend time before practice, after practice and during practice shooting free throws on this goal. I felt like I was going home.
“... I didn’t even take a shot the second half because my thumb hurt so much and I couldn’t get a good feel for the ball. And I was only 1 for 4 (at the line) before I hurt my thumb, but I felt confident. I looked at our fans, and they were going crazy and I knew I couldn’t let them, or my teammates down.”
Althaus hit the first end of the one-and-one, and sank the second. He then drained the two technical free throws to cut it to 51-50.
Oak Grove then received the ball and unheralded Gavin Richardson hit the Panthers’ lone 3-pointer of the game, giving the Panthers a 53-51 lead.
“I’ve never heard our gymnasium that loud,” Althaus said of the reaction to Richardson’s trey. “When Gavin took the shot, I was like, ‘No, no – way to go Gavin! Nice shot!’ Biggest basket of the game and the biggest basket of his life. It was so cool that Gavin made that basket – so cool.”
In a true fairytale ending, Althaus hit his last four free throws in the closing seconds to account for the final score and set off a wild celebration in the Oak Grove gym.
“Jaxon was the man tonight,” said Richardson, who finished with seven points. “My 3-pointer doesn’t mean anything if he doesn’t hit all those free throws. How many did he hit in the fourth quarter?”
Althaus was 9 of 10 in the quarter and scored 18 points in the second half – hitting four layups off four steals.
“You know how sometimes you don’t think, you just react?” Richardson said. “I just reacted on the 3-pointer. I knew it was good the minute it left my hands.”
The late free throws and big 3-pointer completed a dramatic comeback as the Panthers trailed 13-9 after one quarter, 19-15 at the half and by as many as nine points in the second half. They trailed 49-42 with about 2 1/2 minutes left before ending the game on a 15-2 run.
“Everyone is going to be talking about Jaxon’s big fourth quarter and all his free throws and Gavin’s 3-pointer, but we won this game because of our defense,” Oak Grove coach Ty Hames said after his team evened its season record with the Eagles at 2-2 (with both wins coming at home) and improved to 16-5 overall.
“We played great defense at the end of the game and we were pretty solid the entire second half,” Hames added. “When we were down 47-41 (with 3:12 left to play) I called a timeout, and I could just tell we were going to make a comeback.
“I could feel the energy. And as it turns out, that technical was a seven-point play with Jaxon hitting the four free throws and Gavin hitting the 3-pointer. But this was a team win. Kenton has 11 points, Trey (Bryant) battles Macoubrie all night and scores 10 before fouling out and everyone who stepped on the court contributed.
“I have so much respect for Andy’s program, and we had to play as a team and have some guys step up and get it done late to get this win.”
Grain Valley coach Andy Herbert was shocked by the outcome.
“I just keep thinking, ‘How can a game end like this?’” Herbert said after the Eagles wrapped up an 18-4 season that saw them win their third and final Missouri River Valley West Conference crown before moving to the Suburban Conference for next school year.
Macoubrie, who had two monster dunks off missed layups to end the first half, and Garrett led the Eagles with 14 points each. Josh Kilpatrick, who once again provided instant offense off the bench with three 3-pointers, added 11 points.
As the fans began to leave the gymnasium, Oak Grove trainer Cole Webster came to get Althaus, to re-wrap his thumb.
“Give Cole some love,” said Althaus, who was the last Panther to leave the halftime locker room as Webster wrapped the hand to give his thumb some support. “I don’t play without Cole. He took care of me big time tonight.”