Over 990 minutes of action, starting back in the first days of December, Rancho Mirage had been perfect. Sure, there were missed free throws, goofed layups and clanked jumpers, but when the game was on the line – in the rare times you could say that – the Rattlers held tough.
But the dream, a trip to the CIF Southern Section Division 3A finals came down to a two-minute battle for it all, when mental mistakes and missed baskets could mean everything.
And for the first time all season, the Rattlers lost the battle, this time to visiting Chaminade 64-58, and away went a shot at a perfect season, a trip to the championship and a shot at stardom.
Forever, they’ll be remembered in Coachella Valley basketball lore as one of the best to take the court, but … there will be a “but.”
“I felt bad for the kids that they hadn’t had to deal with this until tonight,” Rattler coach Rob Hanmer said. “But it’s part of coaching. It’s part of playing. You are going to lose basketball games, and tonight was the night.”
Hanmer and his crew were ecstatic at the Rattlers’ fates just over a week ago after losing a coin flip, meaning they’d have to go on the road for their second round, and then third round games. It ensured a game at home with it all on the line.
But in the midst of digesting the gravity of it all, the Rattlers fell behind early.
Chaminade’s Aidan Dolan knocked down five 3-pointers in the first quarter for 15 of his team’s 20 points, with the Rattlers trailing by five. It wasn’t a huge margin, and their squad kept it there going into halftime down 33-28, but still, it was unfamiliar territory.
Hanmer said Rancho Mirage hadn’t been guarded so snug all season long, and with 6-11 big man Makur Maker in the post for the Eagles, simple layups weren’t so simple anymore.
Maker made his presence known in the paint in the first half but had just a pair of missed free throws to speak of at the other. That was, until his teammates and coach Ryan Moore found a play that ended with a dump-off pass to the freshman and an easy layup or dunk six times in the third quarter alone, where Chaminade stormed ahead by as many as 15.
But Hanmer’s Warriors, including junior star Charles Neal didn’t start to worry, carefully and methodically chipping away to get within 10 before the quarter ended.
“I think we did a good job of staying calm throughout the game,” said Neal, who finished with a game-high 23 points. “We just didn’t get it done tonight. We didn’t play like we should have played, like we played all year.”
Neal kick-started a 9-0 run over the first 2:50 of the final period with a 3-pointer moments in, and before they or the crowd knew it, the Rattlers were right back in the hunt. The undefeated team had led the squad that entered with a 14-15 record for just 16 seconds, but with 2:26 left, Neal hit two free throws to inch the Rattlers within one.
Then, Tyrell Robinson grabbed what could have been a pivotal defensive rebound with the chance to take the team’s second lead of the game. He only hit the second, though.
On the other end, Makur would hit 2-of-4 free throws before Moore subbed him out to avoid the Rattler’s hopes of putting his less-than-stellar shooting stroke at the line.
Then, a five-second call on a what should have been a simple inbound pass all but sealed the Rattlers’ fates.
The Eagles would hit four more free throws, as Neal missed a pair of desperation threes before the buzzer finally sounded and the tears began to flow.
“We’ve been great at that play all season, but we didn’t run it correctly,” Hanmer said. “That type of stuff is frustrating.”
Undefeated seasons can hinge on simple mistakes or David Tyree-esque miracles. Friday night, the Rattlers just found themselves on the wrong end of history.
“It was an unbelievable journey to get here,” Neal said. “We had a very special group, and we always will be.”
CHAMINADE 64, RANCHO MIRAGE 58
(FG FT-FTA TP) Aidan Dolan 5 1-2 16, Sebastian Lopez 3 1-2 8, Josh Hauser 4 3-4 14, Dayton Doucette 3 0-0 6, Michael Wilson 1 4-4 6, Makur Maker 6 2-9 14.
Totals 22 11-21 64
Rancho Mirage (58)
(FG FT-FTA TP) Matt Barajas-Tiedeman 2 0-0 4, Charles Neal 6 8-8 23, Daryn Evans 6 3-5, 15, Tyrell Robinson 3 4-7 10, Marques Prior 1 0-0 3, Koby Alvarez 1 0-0 3.
Totals 24 15-20 58
Chaminade 20 13 18 13 – 64
Rancho Mirage 15 13 13 17 – 58
3-Point Goals – Chaminade – 9 (Aidan Dolan 5, Josh Hauser 3, Sebastian Lopez 1). Rancho Mirage – 5 (Charles Neal 3, Marques Prior 1, Koby Alvarez 1).