Returning to the gymnasium that shaped his formative years, Lex Cornia’s first game as head coach of the Rich Rebels was a memorable one — down 14 points at the start of the fourth quarter, the Rebels rallied to take Telos Academy to three overtimes, finally outlasting the visiting Titans 72-71.
“We knew it was going to be ragged — a lot of the systems that we hope to eventually be able to do and score out of weren’t quite ready yet,” Cornia said. “But one thing I did learn about this team is they have a lot of fight to them. There were multiple chances in that game where they could have just rolled over and gotten beat. They refused to let that happen. They have a lot of fight, a lot of drive. They won’t quit. That’s a great lesson to learn in game one.”
The game was a slugfest from the start, with both teams knocking off the rust with physical play. The Titans led 18-15 after one quarter, and — with no film to design a game plan by — the Rebels were forced to adjust on the fly.
“Telos is a good team,” Cornia said. “Their entire team is new — they don’t have a single player from last year on their roster. There’s just a lot of individual talent there.”
The second quarter mirrored the first, with the Titans building a sizable lead, and the Rebels continuing to battle back and make it close. Telos went into the break with a 35-30 lead, led by senior Jake Verny with 21 points.
“At halftime, we asked the guys, ‘OK, who is willing to go shut this guy [Verny] down?’ I had 10 sets of eyes look up and say, ‘I’ll do it, coach.’ We made an adjustment, and were able to slow Verny down in the second half. We had great offensive performances, but the performance on the defensive end was huge — that’s what changed that game for us.”
Rich senior Konner Greer had 15 points at the break to lead the Rebels, including a pair of 3-pointers. John Scott followed with eight points, while Logan Muirbrook was a monster on the boards in the first half, pulling down seven.
The second half was a tale of two quarters — Telos owned the third, pushing their lead to 14 points by the end of the frame, 49-35.
But with eight minutes to go in regulation, it was gut-check time for the Rebels, and they proved they were up to the task.
“Even when they were down 14 points, the guys on the floor, the guys on the bench — everyone believed they could still go and win it,” Cornia said. “In a game like that, at any point you don’t believe that you can win, it’s probably over.”
The Rebels went on a phenomenal 17-0 run in the fourth to take a 52-49 lead, with just under a minute-and-a-half to play in regulation. The Titans brought the game back to even at 53-53 as time ran out, and the two teams were headed to overtime.
“I think the players learned that they can trust each other,” Cornia said. “Even though somebody misses a shot, they’re going to go right to work on the defensive end and get a steal. We work hard, and we do it for each other. I think the guys have bought into that.”
Telos regained the upperhand in the first OT, and appeared to have the game in hand. But with eight seconds left on the clock and Rich down by two at 59-57, Greer picked the pocket of the Titans’ Jack Davis following an inbounds pass. He dished off to Muirbrook breaking for the basket, and the layup at the buzzer sent the game into a second OT.
“At the end of the first overtime, we were down by two with eight seconds left,” Cornia explained. “At that point, we were beat. We hadn’t executed the play we had drawn up to take the last shot. But Konner Greer gets after the ball handler and gets a steal, and Logan Muirbrook runs down the floor and gets the layup to force another overtime. I think they learned that hard work can compensate for sloppy execution.”
Both teams scored six in the second OT, setting the stage for a wild finish. The Rebels caught a break before the third OT even began, as a lapse in judgement by the Titans’ leading scorer resulted in a technical. John Scott sank both free throws, giving Rich a 67-65 lead as the third OT began.
Telos battled back, and with under a minute to play, Verny made up for his earlier mistake by sinking a pair of free throws, giving the Titans the lead at 71-69.
With one last possession to work with, the Rebels’ Truman Huefner had a good look at a 3-pointer from the corner. Huefner’s shot didn’t fall, but he was fouled on the play, putting him at the line with a chance to give Rich the lead. The senior calmly sank all three, giving the Rebels the lead — and the game — at 72-71.
“That was huge,” Cornia said of the foul on Hufener. “That play decided the game. The thing I liked best about it, was he had four other players come up to him after the foul and tell him, ‘Hey, you got this.’ They showed confidence in him, and I think he knew — even if he missed all three — that his teammates still had his back.”
The Rebels had four players score in double figures, led by Greer with 28 (including six shots from behind the arc); he flirted with a triple-double, grabbing nine rebounds and a team-high seven steals.
John Scott followed with 17 points, while Muirbrook finished with a double-double, netting 12 points and pulling down 15 boards. Huefner finished with 10 points, including the three foul shots at the end to clinch the win.
“Konner played well, and I thought that our posts played well, too,” he said. “They were going up against a very good interior defense, so we had to ask a lot of our guards. I was glad to see that the guys trusted each other, and were able to change their approach when they needed to. The chemistry is such that nobody cares who scores — we just want the Rebels to score. That doesn’t exist on every team out there.”
As a team, the Rebels were 59% (23 of 39) from the charity stripe, a percentage Cornia said he’d like to see improve.
“Anytime you shoot below 60% from the line, you open the door for a team to beat you,” he said. “So that’s definitely something we need to work on.”
While Cornia said the team has plenty to work on before their next game, he was impressed with the Rebels’ tenacity, especially when chasing a 14-point deficit.
“We knew that the execution was going to be poor early on,” he explained. “But that’s something you can improve on. Work ethic, tenacity, grit — those are things you either have, or you don’t. As a coaching staff, it’s a relief for us to know that we do have some grit on this team — guys that will work hard for however many minutes they’re in the game.”
The Rebels will be in Wyoming this weekend for a tournament in Lyman. Asked how it felt to get his first win as a coach of the Rebels, Cornia said he couldn’t imagine a better way to start his first season at the helm.
“Coming home has been great — a lot of emotion,” Cornia said. “I’ve spent countless hours in that gym, and I’ve watched great coaches have a lot of success there. There’s just a lot of history in that gym, and for our first game to add another chapter like that, it’s a lot of fun.”