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Scoggins: It rained buzzer-beaters, and Orono rode out the storm

Barry Wohler joked that he made a pit stop on the way to work Friday morning.

"I went and bought some On Cloud shoes," he said, "because I'm walking on clouds."

The entire town of Orono is there with him after Wohler's boys basketball team earned a spot in the state tournament next week with a script that reads like fiction.

Facing Benilde-St. Margaret's in a Class 3A section final Thursday night, the teams combined for a buzzer-beater at the end of regulation, a buzzer-beater at the end of the first overtime and a buzzer-beater at the end of the second overtime.

The final dagger was a halfcourt bank shot by Nolan Groves that gave Orono an 86-84 win and set off a raucous celebration.

"I don't have any words … three buzzer-beaters in one game," Groves said Friday morning after barely getting any sleep. "I was so tired after the game I almost threw up in the parking lot."

Can you blame him? The junior guard played every second of the game and finished with 45 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists and a memory that will stay with him a lifetime.

Wohler is a member of the Minnesota High School Basketball Hall of Fame. So when he says, "I don't know if I've been a part of a crazier game, and I've been in a lot of them," the game's details are immune to hyperbole.

Benilde-St. Margaret's coach Damian Johnson, the former Gophers standout, called it "probably the best game I've ever been part of" as a player or coach.

"There were just so many buzzer-beaters and plays where it's like, 'Man, that was just crazy,' " he said.

The competitive fight that his team showed comforted Johnson a day later.

"I can't even be too upset, to be honest," Johnson said. "It was a halfcourt shot to lose the game. It definitely hurts, though."

Orono led by three with 2.4 seconds left in regulation. Wohler elected not to foul but instructed his players to guard outside the three-point line. They sagged too far off, allowing Benilde's Jaleel Donley to fire up a three-pointer at the buzzer.

Overtime.

"When he shot that, I was nervous because he was closer to the basket than I thought," Groves said. "Of course, he banks it in."

Benilde's players and fans stormed the court in jubilation.

"Their crowd goes nuts," Wohler said.

Groves told himself to remain calm as he walked back to the bench. He tried to get his teammates refocused in the huddle.

"The momentum had completely shifted," he said. "I was telling everybody, 'Hey, we cannot let this rattle us.' "

Orono trailed by two points late in OT. Wohler called the play "Luther" — a ball screen for Groves. They rehearsed that play well in practice, with Wohler telling Groves to expect a double-team as he came off the screen.

Sure enough, Groves got doubled, so he passed to point guard Riley Nelson, who drove the lane and dished off to Brady Wooley for a layup with less than a second left.

Groves felt his calves cramping before the second overtime.

"The adrenaline is high," he said, "and we kept fighting because the whole season is on the line."

Orono trailed 84-83 with six seconds left with Benilde-St. Margaret's at the free-throw line. Wohler called timeout to go over strategy. They had a set play designed on a made free throw. On a miss?

"Get Nolan the ball and get the hell out of the way," he said.

The free throw missed, but chaos ensued. Groves grabbed the rebound, but the ball got knocked out of his hands. He battled two Benilde-St. Margaret's players for possession.

"As I was fighting for that rebound, I knew time was running out," he said.

He finally gained control of it.

"As soon as I ripped the ball out of there," he said, "I immediately looked up and saw that there was two seconds left. I was like, all right, I'm going to have to shoot it from halfcourt."

He took three dribbles and let it fly.

The ball banked in.

Orono's student section poured out of the bleachers to celebrate.

"I was getting crushed against the wall," Groves said. "I had to tell people to back up."

When the team finally retreated to the locker room after the awards ceremony, "we had a pretty good dance," Wohler said.

On the bus ride back to school, a teammate told Groves that he had just lived out every kid's dream.

"It's literally what you dream of when you're a little kid in your driveway playing basketball," Groves said. "You hit a halfcourt game-winner to send your team to state."

He stayed up late talking to his parents when he got home. His phone has been "erupting" since the shot went in.

"I can't even get back to all the people," he said.

Now it's on to the state tournament. Time to refocus.

But 50 years from now, he'll still smile over the craziness of that night and a halfcourt heave that left him squeezed against a wall, exhausted, in euphoric celebration with his teammates and classmates.

"It's a memory I'll always have," he said