FRANCESVILLE — Danny Bultema grabbed a rebound, went back up with a shot and it hit off the glass and bounced around the rim.
The basketball could have easily bounced out. But instead it bounced in as the closing seconds ticked off the clock to end the Pioneer Panthers’ season.
Bultema’s putback buzzer-beater lifted Covenant Christian (DeMotte) to a 64-62 win over Pioneer on Saturday night in the Class A West Central championship game.
The No. 10-ranked Knights (22-4) repeated as the Sectional 50 champions. They will face Argos on Saturday in a Triton Regional semifinal matchup.
Bultema may have sunk the Panthers’ (13-12) season, but they have a lot to be proud of with the way they battled back and were within an eyelash of pushing the game into overtime.
“We did everything we could,” said Pioneer senior Calahan Kindley, who scored a game-high 23 points. “They just got a lucky missed shot at the end and he got a board. He was sitting in the right spot. Nothing we can do.
“We left it on the court.”
The Panthers led briefly at the start of the game after back-to-back 3s by Damon McGuire and a 3 and free throw from Addai Lewellen in the first three minutes. But the Knights ended the quarter with a 13-2 run to take a 19-12 lead after one. The lead grew to 31-19 at halftime and could have been bigger but the Knights went just 4 of 10 from the foul line.
The Panthers scrapped their unique five-in, five-out substitution pattern they had used to win four games in a row to start the second half. They also started hitting some shots they missed in the first half. They quickly got to within 33-26 before the Knights built up their biggest lead of the game at 41-28 midway through the third. The Panthers got to within 45-38 after three.
The Panthers stormed back quickly to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Calahan Kindley’s three-point play made it 47-all with 6:35 remaining.
After the Knights went back up four, Logan Nusbaum buried a 3. The Knights answered with a three-point play before Kindley hit from way beyond the arc. But Cameron VanderMolen, the only reserve to play in the game for the Knights, answered with a score to make it a 56-53 game with 3:30 remaining.
Kindley drew a foul on a 3-point attempt but made just 1 of 3 free throws. But the Panthers forced a turnover and Nusbaum scored on a runner to make it 56-all with 2:25 left.
Ben Lins scored a layup followed by a Gavin Heerema pullup jumper from 17 to put the Knights up 60-56 with 1:45 to go. But Nusbaum answered with another 3-point bomb.
Heerema hit two free throws in the bonus situation to put the Knights up 62-59 with 28.7 seconds left. The Knights were guarding against a 3, but Kindley took the ball to the hoop and scored an and-one. He sank the free throw to tie the game with 15.9 seconds left.
The Knights called timeout to set up their final play with 9.1 seconds left. They got the ball to Lins in the left corner. But his contested 3 missed everything. Sometimes an airball is the toughest to rebound defensively and Bultema came up with the game-winning putback at the buzzer.
Bultema entered averaging 4.9 ppg but scored a game-high 23 to lead Covenant Christian. Lins had 17. Cade Walstra had 12. Heerema scored all 10 of his points in the second half and added eight rebounds and eight assists.
Kindley scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half for the Panthers. He added seven boards and three assists. Nusbaum scored 10 of his 11 in the second half as well and added three steals. Jacob Brown had eight points and three steals and McGuire also had eight points. Lewellen and Mason Hayden each added six points. Gage Cripe chipped in three steals.
“We were down 12 at half but we just figured we were getting good shots, they were just rattling out, stay with it,” Pioneer coach Austin Cowley said. “Calahan Kindley just really took over there in the second half, he just became a man. Mixed in a little Jake Brown in the post, a little Nusbaum hitting some 3s.
“I’m just proud of the effort we put there in the second half to come back and tie it up, we never grabbed the lead, but I’m just proud of how we played.”
The Panthers had an effective game plan on defense with their pressure zone. They just got going a little too late on offense.
“Just the first half, down 12 at half, only scored 19, so just a few of those shots would have fell we feel like we’d be cutting the nets down right now,” Cowley said.
The Panthers will graduate six seniors — Kindley, McGuire, Hayden, Gavin James, Haden Krintz and Dustin Sparks.
“It’s going to be sad to see them go. They’ve been a big part of this thing for four years,” Cowley said. “But we’re proud of what they accomplished in their four years. Our fifth winning season in a row, we don’t believe has been done in school history and they were part of four of them. We’re going to miss them, a huge part of us, but that’s part of the deal.”
Kindley was a school record breaking receiver for the back-to-back state championship football team and also finished with a flourish in basketball.
“We had a slow start like every year. Then we always gradually get better,” he said. “We came in with this game plan at the end of the season, it worked fantastic. Credit to the coaches. We played with Covenant Christian, top 10 in the state, just tried to do everything we could do.”