Sam Carver remembers playing in an almost empty Coon Rapids High School Fieldhouse as a freshman for the boys basketball team. Fast forward three years later, Carver was being swarmed by a sellout crowd after he hit a 3-point buzzer-beater to defeat Anoka 54-52 Thursday in the first round of the Section 7AAAA tournament.
It was the first time the Cardinals hosted a section game since 1998.
“It’s so surreal,” Coon Rapids head coach Mike Ogorek said. “It doesn’t seem like it even happened. Sam Carver is a kid who started as a freshman my first year here. One of the things we talked about with Carver and (Marcus) Rask, those are two kids who played since freshman year, is we want to change this program. It’s just crazy to think that we’re going to a section semifinal for the first time in who knows how long. And it’s by a Sam Carver miracle. This will be talked about for a long time – what Carver and these seniors mean to this program. That shot will stand the test of time here in Coon Rapids.”
The final sequence of events summed up the Cardinals’ season: magical.
Coon Rapids had one win in 2013-14, two wins in 2014-15 and three wins in 2015-16. This season, the Cardinals went 12-14 to earn the No. 3 seed in the section playoffs.
More than 1,000 fans packed the gymnasium for the first round game against the sixth-seeded Tornadoes.
And they got their money’s worth.
Coon Rapids held a 50-44 lead with 2:22 remaining. Anoka quickly erased the deficit to 50-49 in a minute of play. Dayo Lawal extended the Coon Rapids lead to 51-49 with a free throw with 17.4 seconds on the clock.
On the ensuing possession, Anoka’s Joseph Lohse got himself open at the top of the key and buried a 3-pointer with six seconds remaining and the Tornadoes led 52-51.
Coon Rapids pushed the ball up the court and the ball found itself in the hands of Carver, the team’s 6-foot-4 center. Carver gathered the pass four feet behind the 3-point arc and let it fly, hitting nothing but net right as time expired.
“I knew the clock was running down,” Carver said. “I didn’t know what was going on so I just threw it up. To be honest, I didn’t even see the ball go in. I fell over and everyone starting falling on top of me.”
Fans rushed the court in celebration, a scene Ogorek couldn’t have imagined three years ago when he took over the program as head coach. The Cardinals have made giant strides this season with a group of seven seniors.
“It’s one of those things when the season is done you can take a step back and look at the big picture,” Ogorek said. “Now it’s moment to moment. But look at this moment. This community has really grabbed onto this team. This team loves performing for this community. It’s been a special season. This is the tradition we want to build here.”
“It was a great atmosphere,” Carver added. “The whole gym was packed. It was unbelievable tonight.”
The Cardinals now turn their attention to Andover, who is seeded No. 7 and beat No. 2 Blaine 59-57 in overtime.
The semifinal game is set for 8 p.m. on March 15 at North Branch High School.