If this is the last game for Sunrise Mountain's seven boys basketball seniors, it's hard to think of many moments that would mean more than Thursday's season-ending 70-61 victory at neighborhood rival Liberty's sold-out gym.
After all, teams don't get a trophy for making the playoffs.
"I think leaving here on a high like this is something that we won't forget," Sunrise Mountain senior guard Marcos Lopez said. "I'll never forget this for the rest of my life nobody on this team will. If this is it, we left on a good note."
For a second year, the Mustangs are (literally) King of the Court in north Peoria. Liberty (15-11) came into the game with one of the state's most well-rounded offenses, but the team two miles down the road showed exquisite balance.
All five Mustang starters scored between 11 and 13 points apiece, and sophomore forward Elroy Masters added eight off the bench.
"We've got seven seniors and you saw that tonight. We've been up and down, but I think our tough schedule prepared us for tonight," Sunrise Mountain coach Jason Pasinski said. "I love all those guys and I'm so proud of this group. I told them regardless of what happens with the postseason, we're playing our best basketball. If we get in, great, if not let's play hard and smart and together."
Sunrise Mountain (14-12) usually looks to senior forward Brandon Kocmoud on offense, but against Liberty the attack started with senior guards Chris Garcia, Lopez and Tyler Sciotto.
Garcia scored six of the Mustangs first nine points, then with Sunrise Mountain leading 22-19, Sciotto and Lopez combined for 12 of the team's next 17 points to push the lead to 39-30 at halftime.
The trio kept attacking in the third period, combining for 10 of 14 points as Sunrise Mountain went up 53-40. Garcia (12 points), Sciotto (12 points) and Lopez (13 points) all finished well above their season scoring averages.
"It feels nice because we thought we were out-sized, we though we were outmatched, but we took care of business," Sciotto said. "We got the W working together. Six people scoring between 8 and 14 points, that's a real team and real teamwork."
With the Mustangs veterans showing their experience, Liberty needed its captains to respond. Forward Josh Sparks, normally a player who excells at the little things, took on the offensive burden.
Sparks scored his 10th point on a layup to cut the lead to 53-42. On the ensuing possession, a wild scramble broke out for a loose ball, with both teams losing and regaining it and three players diving on the floor in the 15-second sequence.
With 2:13 remaining in the third, Liberty grabbed the ball and called a timeout. The energized Lions closed the quarter on an 8-2 run, during which Sparks nailed a three-point shot, then followed a miss, was fouled and completed a conventional three-point play. He finished with a game-high 20 points.
"He's been playing great as of late," Liberty coach Mark Wood said.
The home team's charge continued in the fourth quarter, as junior center Jake Patterson scored and senior forward Branden Croteau made one of two free throws, bringing Liberty within a bucket at 55-53.
Sciotto answered with a three, but Sparks was fouled on a three-point attempt. He made two of the free throws to keep the pressure on.
"I felt like we were getting ready to break away and then we had that missed layup. It was like 'uh-oh are the wheels going to fall off,' because Liberty battled," Pasinski said. "But our kids were ready and they played well."
Sunrise Mountain's forwards created two big hoops for each other to regain control. Kocmoud drove and found senior Steven Kane open in the corner for three to push the lead back to six. After a layup by Liberty junior forward Nathan Bannister and two free throws by Garcia, Kane fed a cutting Kocmoud to make it 65-57 with 2:30 on the clock.
The Mustangs were in the clear. Kocmoud and Kane each finished with 11 points on the night, and Kocmoud pulled down 15 rebounds and dished seven assists.
"Honestly, what it came down to was they hit great shots and we didn't," Wood said. "I didn't walk away from that game upset with anything we did. It was a very well-played game by both teams. They ran Pasinski's sets to perfection. Everyone got to see a good basketball game"
Both teams now play the waiting game. Playoff brackets should be announced at 11 a.m. Friday.
Liberty knows it's in the 4A-II tournament. It entered the game at No. 8 in the power points. Several teams below it had finished their seasons. Wood said the squad most likely to jump his is Flagstaff Coconino, who played Flagstaff Thursday. Results of that game were not available.
"Many of our guys haven't played in this type of atmosphere before," Wood said. "Now they have, and we've still got the state tournament. It hurts, but it's good to feel that pain and know you still get another chance."
Sunrise Mountain entered the game at No. 19 in the 4A-I power points. Though the rankings are not, Sunrise Mountain jumped to No. 15 as of 11 p.m. Thursday night.
"I've loved playing with these guys for four years, but as a group I think everybody would say that out of the four years we played basketball, that (tonight) is the highlight," Garcia said.