As a first year program with no seniors in the state quarterfinals, Denmark’s boys basketball team had already shattered every preseason expectation by simply being there.
The Danes weren’t happy with just that, though. On Wednesday night, in front of their home crowd, Denmark was looking to do the unthinkable and move on to the state semifinals. That crusade started with a dunk — by the other team.
Woodward Academy, led by seven-foot center Walker Kessler, was utilizing its size advantage to perfection. Down 8-0 with 5:49 left in the first quarter, Denmark’s offense was being suffocated, and it looked like the game had the potential to get out of hand.
Denmark isn’t just any first-year team, though, and head coach Tyler Whitlock knew that. Rather than call timeout amid all the blocks and misses, he elected to let his young squad figure it out.
“We were taking great shots — they just weren’t falling,” he said. “I knew that calling a timeout would only cause our team to sit there and think about that, which may have compounded it and made it worse. I said, ‘You know what? We've done it all year. I'm going to let them play through it.’”
The Danes rewarded Whitlock’s confidence. Adonnis Tolbert and Ze’Vian Capers connected on shots in the final two minutes of the first quarter, and with 3:29 left in the first half, Tolbert threw down his own dunk to tie the game at 12-12.
Denmark even rode that momentum to a four-point halftime lead, but Woodward began the second half with a crushing 14-0 run. The Danes didn’t give up, even clawing to within five midway through the fourth, but the War Eagles ultimately took the 58-50 win to end Denmark’s season at 23-7, an almost unheard-of result for a first-year program.
“Obviously, everybody wants to end the season on a win, but the reality is that there's only one team that's going to get to do that at the end of the year,” Whitlock said. “It's definitely hard. I'm very hopeful that when we wake up tomorrow, that we wake up and realize what we were able to accomplish.”
The Danes’ run late in the second quarter started with Tolbert’s dunk, but Sutton Smith, who scored a team-leading 24 points, did what he could to keep it going. He hit a three to tie it again at 15-15 with 2:40 left in the first half, and less than a minute later, he stole the ball from Kessler and went uncontested to the basket for Denmark’s first lead.
“We just wanted to go right at him,” Smith said. “A lot of us were just talking about having no fear, leaving it all out there. We wanted to attack him and try to get fouls on him. He's a great player – he's probably going to be playing in the NBA in a few years.”
With the Danes leading 22-18 at halftime, Whitlock was more than pleased with his team’s defense, but after Woodward’s run, Denmark was suddenly facing a 32-22 deficit with a minute to go in the third. With Smith, Tolbert and Joseph Scott leading the charge, Denmark did what they could to eat away at that lead in the fourth, but the War Eagles made enough plays late to ice the win.
It’ll take a while for the Danes to get over Wednesday’s loss, but with every player set to come back, Denmark’s goal next year is a state title. It’s an accomplishment that doesn’t seem nearly as unrealistic as it did just a few months ago.
“No one thought we were going to be here,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, the only people that knew we could be here was us. To do that with this group of guys was awesome.”