Eighth-grade boys take AAU tourney

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Call up the Hollywood scriptwriters.

The Craig eighth-grade boys AAU basketball team had a tournament that movies are made of in Laramie this weekend.

"I told my nephew the story, and he asked if I went out and measured the distance from the rim to the floor before the championship like they did in 'Hoosiers,'" coach Jeff Knoche said. "I didn't do that, but it was an amazing performance."

The boys from Craig went through the 105-team tournament undefeated to win the championship Sunday in Arena-Auditorium, the home of the University of Wyoming basketball teams.

The Bulldogs finished 5-0, with two wins against Denver's Horizon team to win the title.

"Horizon is made up of players from four programs out of Denver," Craig AAU director Steve Maneotis said. "(The boys) beat two teams that they had lost to by 30 earlier in the Greeley Tournament. That footnotes what kind of job they did."

Knoche became the coach a couple of weeks before the tournament after former coach Blaine Corlett stepped down because he was moving. The new coach was a high school and college coach on the East Coast before moving back to Craig six months ago.

"We were up against teams that were big-time, with matching uniforms and warm-ups," Knoche said. "We were a rag-tag bunch, and teams had a hard time taking us seriously."

Teams started to take the Bull--dogs seriously after they won their first two games, 37-31 against Torrington, Wyo., and 71-35 against Glenrock, Wyo. That is about when the Hoosier-esque story began.

"I think the guys went in with the mindset to win two games," Knoche said. "But we just kept winning."

After the Glenrock win, the eighth-graders were up against Eaton, a team that had won its last three AAU tournaments. Eaton's size was impressive.

"Our tallest guys were shorter than their shortest guys," Knoche said. "They had a 6-foot, 7-inch center, and he was in eighth grade. It looked like I had a bunch of ankle biters."

The Craig ankle biters fell behind early against Eaton, trailing by 12 in the second quarter, but they didn't give in.

"We kept patient on offense and crept back in it," Knoche said. "Then we shut them down and took over in the fourth quarter."

Thomas Noble hit a 3-pointer with 16 seconds left to put Craig up, 36-35. Eaton called timeout with 4 seconds left for an inbounds play under their basket.

"It was obvious they were just going to try to lob it to one of their big guys," Knoche said.

Craig's tallest player, Chayton Owens, guarded the Eaton player inbounding the ball.

"I told him to jump as high as he could and scream loud," Knoche said.

Owens deflected the pass, which then bounced off an Eaton player and went out of bounds. A technical was called on Eaton after one of its players slammed the ball to the court after the play.

The Bulldogs hit both free throws to win, 38-35.

It was more shocking than anything else for us to win," said guard Thomas Noble.

"It never felt like we were down by 14. We always had someone make a big shot, then we just went on a run."

The win moved the eighth-gra-ders one game from the championship game and into Sunday's portion of the tournament.

"The great thing was that the parents of the eighth-grade girls team and the girls stuck around," Knoche said.

"They had the whole arena going nuts for Craig."

Horizon was up next for the 'Dogs.

The Denver club matched Eaton's size and athleticism.

"I had referees come up and tell me we'd be lucky if we were within 20," the coach said.

"Those teams had guys dunking in the warm-ups. Those were eighth-graders dunking in warm-ups."

Inspired by the quote "Pain heals, chicks dig scars, glory lasts forever" from the movie "The Replacements" and a fan base that "played a big part in our success" Knoche said, the Bulldogs took on the big boys from the big city.

Once again, the ankle biters started out a bit overwhelmed, trailing 9-0, but they worked their way back into the game.

Noble hit two more gut-check 3-pointers with less than a minute left ,and five players scored in double figures to defeat Horizon, 40-37.

The win allowed the Craig team to rest as the remaining teams duked it out in the consolation bracket for a chance to play in the championship.

Horizon earned a rematch.

Again, the team that had a starting five that averaged 6'3" jumped out to a lead, and the ankle biters came back.

"At halftime, I asked them what grade they would give their performance," Knoche said "They gave themselves an F and said they were stinking up the court. They only trailed by one."

Craig tied it up after the third quarter and then took off in the fourth quarter. They outscored Horizon, 18-8, for a 50-40 win.

"Little Mikey Peters shut down every team's top guard in the fourth quarter of the last three games," Knoche said. "I don't even think Horizon's guy touched the ball in the fourth (quarter) of the second game. These guys were just like the little engine that could."

The real test for the eighth-grade team will be to see whether the stars were aligned in their favor for only last weekend or whether they're for real. Craig hosts its own tournament Friday through Sunday.

"This is a hungry, very intelligent group of players who want to play and who have been coached well in the past," Knoche said. "I'm curious to see what's going to happen this weekend when there is some pressure on us."

Their first game is against Steamboat Springs at 5 p.m. Friday at Moffat County High School.

David Pressgrove can be reached at 824-7031 or dpressgrove@craig-dailypress.com.

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