NAMPA — While trying to sell a hat signed by the entire team during a timeout, the public address announcer called this year’s Nampa Christian boys basketball team one of the best in school history.
It was a good sale's pitch. But he might be right.
The second-ranked Trojans made a compelling case in a thrilling 66-62 win over No. 3 Melba Saturday night at Troost Family Gym to remain all alone in first place in the 2A Western Idaho Conference standings.
"I think this is one of the best teams Nampa Christian's ever had," junior wing Russell Vander Woude said. "I think we have a real shot at doing something at state."
This from a team that won just five games last year. It was the worst season for Nampa Christian since going winless in 2012. The Trojans returned just one starter (Vander Woude) from that team too. It resulted in them being picked fifth out of seven teams in the preseason coaches poll.
Nampa Christian is now 11-1 overall, 3-0 2A WIC for the best start in at least 14 years. The Trojans also have a shot of being voted the new No. 1 team in the state next week. They finished just four points behind North Fremont and received two first-place votes this week.
"We're proving people wrong," Nampa Christian coach Nate Rex said. "I think they just believe in themselves. Our chemistry is really good for such a young team. They just rely on each other when times get hard and they're really coachable. So it's all you can really ask for as a coach."
Vander Woude dropped a game-high 26 points, with 16 of those coming in the second half. None of which were bigger than with 1:47 remaining.
Easton Bunnell gave the Mustangs (8-3, 1-2) a 58-57 lead on a layin. It was their first lead since the 6:05 mark of the second quarter. But Vander Woude made sure the lead was short-lived.
He immediately took the ball down the court, dribbled to the left and drilled a baseline jumper to put the Trojans back up 59-58 15 seconds later. They never trailed again.
"Rusty just does everything we ask him to," Rex said. "We couldn't ask for a better player and a better leader on our team."
Joe Ihli and Ryan Schober teamed up to give Nampa Christian some much-needed breathing room just seconds later. After Vander Woude's clutch shot, Ihli got a key rebound on a Melba miss. He then quickly got the ball out to Schober on an outlet pass for an easy layup that put the Trojans up 61-58 with 1:20 remaining.
But Melba didn’t go away.
Jace Logan drained a catch-and-shoot 3 to cut the lead to 63-62 with 12.3 seconds left. Melba then sent Nampa Christian's Landon Cheney to the line three seconds later. Cheney extended the lead to 64-62 by making 1 of 2 free throws. Melba's Joe Reiber had a chance to send the game into overtime, but his corner jumper with four tickets remaining fell short. Ihli then put the Mustangs away for good at the line.
"They're our biggest rival, so it just feels really good to beat them," Schober said.
The Trojans didn’t look like they were going to need those late-game heroics.
Caden Yett gave them a 33-21 lead on 3-pointer 28 seconds into the second half. This after they closed the first half with a 9-0 run for a 30-21 advantage at the break.
But the Mustangs erased the deficit within a matter of minutes.
A Reiber 3 with 6:20 to go in the third quarter, kickstarted a 14-2 Melba run. Caleb Fong tied the game at 35-35 with a floater two minutes later. But it didn't rattle the Trojans.
Vander Woude ended the run with an uncontested layin on a full-court pass from Ihli. That led to the Trojans going on a run of their own. Cole Wasson gave the Trojans a 43-35 lead on a jumper to cap an 8-0 run with 1:10 to go in the third.
"I think it just shows that they trust the process of how to close out games," Rex said. "We talked about making free throws at the end and they did that. We talked about executing our plays at the end and they did that. So they're just prepared for any situation."
Reiber recorded 20 points for Melba. Bunnell also reached double figures in scoring with 10.
Schober had 10 points for the Trojans.