CALDWELL — Jake Poulton personally hugged just about everyone in the Vallivue High School gymnasium.
The Columbia senior guard had person after person come up to him after the game. He couldn’t refuse even if he wanted to. Not after those type of heroics.
Poulton drilled not one, but two buzzer-beating 3-pointers, the latter of which delivered the Columbia boys basketball team the first district championship in program history.
It was all part of Columbia’s 67-64 overtime win over Vallivue in the 4A District III Championship game Thursday night.
“The feeling is unexplainable,” Poulton said. “If someone would have told me my freshman year that I’d win a district championship and be going to the state tournament my senior year I would have been like, ‘Damn really.’ I really didn’t think that would be a reality.”
That's because during Poulton's freshman year the team went 0-22. Poulton didn't experience his first win until fives into his sophomore season. It was all a part of a 54-game losing streak from Jan. 31, 2014 to Dec. 15, 2016.
It was by far the worst losing streak in the state at the time.
"You know a lot of teams laughed at us," Poulton said. "But that just made me want to work that much harder and it motivated me that much more to become the best player I can be. We just stayed down and kept working and we now made something happen."
Poulton scored a game-high 31 points and made 7 of 11 3-pointers, none of which were bigger than when the clock was ticking down. After Gabe Gallegos missed the back end of a pair of free throws that would have put Vallivue up by three possessions at 56-49 with 14.1 seconds remaining, Poulton went to work.
He started by pulling up and sinking a 3 to cut the deficit in half at 55-52 with 6.1 seconds to go. Columbia coach Tennison Tripple then quickly called a timeout, and what followed next was nothing short of incredible.
Jaylen Alexander tipped the inbounds pass from Vallivue’s Jayden Moran. It resulted in the ball falling right into the hands of Poulton. He took three dribbles before letting it go from about three feet behind the 3-point line at the top of the arc. The ball found nothing but the bottom of net to tie the game at 55-55 and force an improbable overtime.
“He’s the heart and soul of this team,” Alexander said. “We definitely wouldn’t of been here without him. He was making the shots that we needed and I still can’t believe we won that.”
But Poulton didn’t stop there.
Following a corner 3 by Gallegos that tied the game at 64-64 with about 45 seconds left in overtime, Poulton got the ball in his hands for one last possession. He ran the clock all the way down to approximately five seconds before making his move.
Poulton dribbled the ball from the near sideline by the Columbia bench all the way to the other side of the court. He then stepped back and released the ball as two Vallivue defenders flew past him. The ball rattled around the rim for the briefest of moments before falling in.
Poulton didn’t move. He instead stood still and turned to the crowd as his teammates along with the entire student section mobbed him in celebration.
“He deserves that,” Tripple said. “There’s no better kid to have the ball in his hands, especially when he’s feeling it. I’m just so happy for him. He deserves every bit of that whole thing with everything he’s gone through.”
Poulton also added seven rebound and six steals, while Alexander chipped in with a double-double. Alexander recorded 25 points and 11 rebounds for the Wildcats (18-6), who nearly let another season get away from them.
They finished the season losing three of their final four games, including to a three-win Emmett team. It dropped them from first place in the Southern Idaho Conference standings to fourth.
But just like thee seasons ago, that was then, this is now.
"My athletic director doesn't like talking about it, and I don't either," Tripple said. "I think we're over that. I think we're here to stay and here to compete now."
Amoro Lado logged a team-high 26 points and seven rebounds for Vallivue. Mike Fitts added 15 points and Gallegos had 13 rebounds for the Falcons (14-10), who are still headed to state for the third year in a row.
They will play either Moscow or Lakeland at 6:15 p.m. on Feb. 28 at Borah High School in the first round of the 4A state tournament.
"My message to the guys was, let this hurt for 24 hours and let it motivate and drive us to go and make another run at the state tournament," Vallivue coach Ryan Lundgren said.
Columbia, meanwhile, will play Century at 1:15 on Feb. 28. It will be the Wildcats’ first ever postseason game.
And the Wildcats made sure to personally thank Poulton for it with hug after hug.
“I’ve never gotten that many hugs before,” Poulton laughed. “But in all seriousness, I’m very grateful for it. We’re here and I couldn’t do it without my team. I’m just giving it all to my school. That’s what I’m doing it for, my family.”