All sorts of explanations and rationales could be conjured up to explain the current situation of the Denmark boys basketball team, which lost 64-61 to Blessed Trinity, the first-place team in their region, on Tuesday. The game in itself had enough shifts and twists to fill a season.
But how it ultimately ended was plainly simple for Danes sophomore guard Sutton Smith. Smith had driven Denmark’s offense to that point, using a feathery touch from mid-range to accrue a team-leading 23 points. His make with three seconds left in regulation put the game in overtime. And with two seconds to play in that period, Smith got an open look on a three-pointer from the left wing. His shot only reached the front rim.
"We had a good look," Smith said. "I've just got to knock it down."
The loss was the third the Danes (15-5, 5-3 Region 7-4A) have sustained this season to the Titans and Marist, the two teams ahead of them in the Region 7-4A standings, but it was also the third within single digits, and the second that came down to the final possession.
Denmark coach Tyler Whitlock sees the pattern of close, late losses that the Danes have established recently, and he saw factors like untimely turnovers, missed timeout opportunities, and a difficult Titans zone defense give Denmark trouble on Tuesday.
"It was a little bit slower paced than we're used to," Whitlock said. "We're used to getting out, and they did a great job of slowing us down and making us think, and we do a much better job of getting out in transition, where we just play ball and don't have to think a lot."
The Titans did look like frontrunners for much of regulation. They led 17-11 after the first quarter, and while the Danes led 23-21 late in the second, the Titans went on a 12-0 run to end the half, pouncing on transition opportunities as Denmark’s shooters went cold.
But the Danes inched back at the end of the third quarter and then went on a 10-2 run to open the fourth quarter and take a 50-47 lead. The Titans slipped ahead by five in the final minute, but after Ze’Vian Capers hit a three with 13 seconds to play and Andy Swade missed the front end of a one-and-one, Smith banked in a floater with 3 seconds left to tie the game at 57-57 and force overtime.
The Danes scored first in overtime, and then the Titans responded with a free throw and a three-pointer. That preceded a flurry of action and blunders in both sides, one that included a five-second call on Denmark, a backcourt violation on Blessed Trinity, and a streak of calls that raised the ire of Denmark’s fans and concluded with Capers being called for dribbling out of bounds past the baseline.
However, the Danes were still in it after Smith made two free throws with 14 seconds left and Jax Bouknight made only one with eight ticks to play, and they wound up getting the last shot.
The focus of Denmark's recent pivotal losses had come down to the late minutes, but Whitlock certainly doesn't see those as the sole determining factor.
"Honestly, I don't even put it on the closing," Whitlock said. "You play the game for 32 minutes, and in this case, we played 36. Every minute should be just as valuable as any one ... Games aren't necessarily won and lost in the last two minutes of games, and I felt like we put ourselves in a situation in the first half where we really had to battle and find a way to get back."
And while he's using the defeats to teach and motivate the team, he also isn't letting any excuses into the Danes' thinking.
"We understand that there's no guarantees moving forward," Whitlock said. "Just because we're young does not guarantee that anything's going to happen next year. And this is game 20. Inexperience is no excuse for anybody at game 20."