As he stood in front of Denmark's bench midway through the third quarter on Tuesday night, boys basketball coach Tyler Whitlock could feel the inside of his light blue jacket getting warmer, and for good reason.
He took it off, and that turned out to be a good decision for what came next: The Danes, riding an eight-game win streak, were taking Region 7-4A opponent Marist down to the wire, with the first-ever meeting between the two teams being a five-point game with just 12.5 seconds to play.
Point guard Sutton Smith, Denmark’s go-to playmaker, made a critical three to close the lead to two as the clock came dangerously close to zero, and after fouling Marist’s Alex Spiegel, the Danes were down three with just 4.6 seconds to play.
Throughout Tuesday night, Denmark proved it could compete side-by-side with one of the best squads in their region, but the Danes could not get the ensuing rebound down the court after Spiegel missed his second shot and fell 65-62.
“It’s obviously very heartbreaking, especially for the guys,” Whitlock said. “When you put and invest as much as you do throughout the season, and to come up on the short side, it makes it difficult. I do believe that we match up well with them. I’m excited to hopefully see them two more times.”
Marist started off fast, working to a 10-4 lead with 5:08 in the first quarter. Smith connected on a three from the top of the key to narrow the War Eagle lead, and that shot began a brief momentum shift to Denmark’s side, with 11 making two threes from the corner and Smith hitting a jumper to gain a 19-13 advantage with just over a minute left in the period.
The Danes held a 19-17 lead after one, but Marist went on an 11-3 run in the second to take a 30-22 edge, moving the ball around well to find their open shots. Denmark couldn’t get their shots to fall midway throughout the period, but by halftime, the Danes trailed by just seven.
“I’m just proud of how hard our guys fought,” Whitlock said. “(Marist) is a very well-coached team, very disciplined in all that they do. Our kids never gave up. I’m just glad our kids kept fighting the entire way.”
Denmark continued their comeback attempt after the break, with Smith hitting a fadeaway three with 2:05 left in the quarter and Karson Kinnevy parlaying a blocked shot by Joseph Scott into an easy bucket. Momentum was on Denmark’s side, but Marist was able to stave the Danes off, thanks in part to a missing piece on Denmark’s side: Ze’Vian Capers, who fouled out midway through the third.
“Defensively, he allows us to have athleticism on the wing but also with some of their bigger guys, they can post up, so he gives us that physicality down low as well,” Whitlock said. “At times, they found ways to take advantage when he wasn’t in the game.”
Still, despite Capers’ late absence, Denmark was able to tie the game at 59-59 after two made Smith free throws with 1:16 left.
While Denmark battled toe-to-toe with Blessed Trinity in early December and on Tuesday against Marist, moral victories are not good enough for the Danes, even as a first-year program.
“We showed we can compete with them tonight but we have to play a little bit better,” Smith said. “We all know it’s going to come down to (the) region tournament at the end. We just wanted to figure them out, and hopefully the cards fall where they need to.”
Marist girls 62, Denmark 13
Marist held full control of the game from the opening tip, holding a dominating 32-12 lead at halftime. Denmark only scored one point for the entirety of the second half, off a free throw from Leah Kelly with 1:53 left in the fourth quarter.
Tyana Green led the Danes with seven points. Clarissa Kelly finished with four.