LINCOLN – Cam Binder received a second chance to make Auburn’s first state tournament game since 1985 a victory.
He didn’t miss.
Binder’s initial attempt at a game-winner from the right of the key against Grand Island Central Catholic went off the front of the rim.
But the ball came right back to the sophomore guard, and he fired up another shot from in front of the 3-point line while falling backward.
Swish. Buzzer. Celebration.
That gave No. 9-rated Auburn a 44-42 victory over the No. 5 Crusaders in the opening game of the C-1 tournament Thursday morning at the Devaney Sports Center.
Binder said there wasn’t time to think about the second shot.
“Get it up as fast as possible and hope it goes in and hope they count it -- that’s the biggest thing,” said Binder, who finished with 14 points after averaging 20.6. “You just think of everything you’ve gone through, everything you do and you just do what your skills tell you to do. Just go with your heart. Don’t overthink it.”
Auburn coach Jim Weeks was confident that his team would be advancing to Friday’s semifinals as soon as the second shot left Binder’s hands.
“He’s the guy you want shooting,” Weeks said. “A wide-open look like that? I thought it was in. If he would have missed it, I would have been surprised. He plays every day. He has a gym in his front yard.”
It was a heartbreaking way for GICC to end its season.
“We forced (Binder) into an initial tough shot,” Crusaders coach Tino Martinez said. “He did a good job of sticking with it. The ball didn’t bounce our way. It ended up back in his lap and he made a big shot in a big moment. There’s no defense for that.
“We did all that we could. I felt that our kids played their hearts out (and) left everything on the floor that we had. Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way, and that was kind of the case at the end.”
The Crusaders (18-8) had their own late heroics. Senior guard Jack Goering capped off his game-high 23-point effort by hitting a 3-pointer from the left wing to tie the game at 42 with 43 seconds left.
“I thought (Goering) was great,” Martinez said. “He’s been great for four years. We talked about Jack a lot in the locker room. If anybody wants to learn how to play, just come to practice every day because the kid is relentless in practice. I can’t get him breaks, I can’t get him out of reps. …
“So it doesn’t surprise me that on a day like today in a big moment in a big game that he played the way that he did. He’s a great player, and we’re definitely going to miss him.”
But the Bulldogs (22-3) ran down the clock from there, and Binder gave Auburn its second consecutive two-point win in the first round of the state tournament – with a 34-year gap in between those games.
Turnovers haunted Central Catholic down the stretch. After only committing seven over the first three quarters, the Crusaders had six in the fourth.
Jacob Herbek hit a pair of free throws to put GICC up 39-35 with 3:26 left, but the Crusaders would only get Goering’s tying 3-pointer after that.
CJ Hughes got a steal and layup for his only points to put the Bulldogs up 40-39 with 2:34 left.
Central Catholic turned it over again on its next possession, and after running clock Brody Darnell hit a pair of free throws with 1:30 remaining to push Auburn’s lead to 42-39.
The teams then traded turnovers before Goering tied things up.
“We had a few big turnovers – just silliness, really,” Martinez said. “We’re good enough players not to have that happen, but we’ve got to do a better job. They’re tough learning lessons at this point because there’s no tomorrow.”
“Some NFL coach said, ‘Experience is a tough teacher because they give the lesson first.’ Well, we don’t really have any material to go work on.”
It was an especially difficult way for the Crusaders to end their season. If one player had been between Binder and the rebound or one finger had deflected it a different direction, the game would have been decided in overtime.
“It’s hard,” Martinez said. “We felt that we were maybe good enough to be playing (in the semifinals), so obviously we knew we were going to have to limit mistakes and play as mistake free as we could in order to do that.
“It’s tough because you’re never playing for this (first-round game). You’re playing for (Friday) and Saturday, and our kids are special in that way. They commit to the process as good as any people I’ve been around, and they’re willing to put up with everything I put them through or we put them through as a coaching staff.”