TRAVERSE CITY – The Frankfort boys basketball team already knew what play to run.
After all, they practice the 'two seconds or less" desperation play the night before games and can't leave the gym until the shot is made.
That practice came in handy when the Panthers (19-5) were tied at 38 with Leland (14-9) with only 1.5 seconds left in the Division 4 regional title game at TC Central on Thursday.
Ethan Ness heaved the ball over the Comet's 6-foot-8 center Greyson Carlson, more than 60 feet down the court to the outstretched hands of Conner Smith. Smith tipped the ball to sophomore Jack Stefanski, who had to take a quick shot from downtown and found nothing but net to lift Frankfort to a 41-38 win over the Comets and earn them a regional crown.
"We knew that was our play," Stefanski said. "Right when that ball went up I knew Conner could go and get it. He caught it and tipped a good pass to me and I just shot the shot. I knew it was going in because I just felt it. I hadn't made a three all game and I knew that was my one."
The shot effectively ended Leland's season and sent the Panthers barreling into the state quarterfinals to face Big Rapids Crossroads Academy (23-1) on Tuesday.
"(Ness) made the perfect pass, Conner (Smith) made the perfect catch and tipped it out to Jack (Stefanski) and he got it off with nothing but net," Panthers head coach Dan Loney said of the play. "That is a shot of a lifetime."
While the Panthers and their fans erupted into pandemonium, the team on the other side was in complete shock.
"That hurts, it is a complete dagger through your soul," Leland head coach Jon Kiessel said. "I think we did everything we could to cover it. But, Stefanski hit that shot and he will never ever forget it. Everybody dreams of that shot. Hats off to him and hats off to them for having that play ready."
The outcome may have come down to the final play but there were several sequences leading up to the final seconds that set that opportunity up.
This was the third time these teams met this season and they were prepared for each other from the tip.
Leland took a 10-9 lead after the first, Frankfort held a 20-17 lead at half and these teams were tied at 29 headed into the fourth quarter. There was always a feeling that it was going to come down to the last shot or overtime.
They began the fourth by trading buckets before Leland scored on back-to-back possessions to take a three point lead. JJ Popp then entered the lane to take a charge and set Leland up to make it a two possession game.
Their attempt failed and on the next possession they lost Frankfort senior Will Newbold on the perimeter, letting him knock down a 3-pointer to tie the game at 36.
The teams traded baskets before Leland had a shot to win the game.
The Comets brought the ball up with under 20 seconds to play and ran some high ball screens to try and get a shooter open. Everything collapsed and senior Justin Bardenhagen was forced to drive the lane for the game winning shot, only to meet a waiting Smith.
Officials called a charge, and the Panthers took possession with only 1.5 seconds to play. The play that followed is already in the lore of historic moments in Frankfort history.
Gavin Miller netted 19 for Leland and Popp had 16.
Stefanski led the Panthers in scoring with 15 points, Newbold tallied 13 points and Jack Reznich had 8.
"This is a resilient bunch," Loney said. "There is a buzz around this team that is special. I have been around a lot of basketball and it is almost like this season is meant to be. Everything that has happened has fallen into place for us. Sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride."
The ride to the regional final was sweet for Leland as they finished fifth in the Northwest Conference and rode talented young players to a district title.
"With that excitement, it is painful to lose," Kiessel said. "But I told them that there are so many people who have no idea what it is like to be in their shoes. They have never fought so hard for something for months. You know you're living when you are in those spots. That is why we play this game."
For Frankfort, this run was unexpected by most after they lost six seniors, including their entire starting five from last year, to graduation. Loney thinks this group is primed for a special run and the players feel they have had something to prove.
"After the six seniors that left after last year, no one thought we were going to be good this year," Stefanski said. "We felt it was our turn to step up. We finally showed that we can play and Dan Loney is a great coach. If we play for him hard we can go places."