CALDWELL - With 3.3 seconds on the clock and his team clinging to a two-point lead, Keith Kipp Jr. stepped to the line for what could easily be considered the most important free throws of his high school career.
The atmosphere of Friday night's Class 1A Division I semifinal was the epitome of small-school basketball. On one side of the gym were the Grace enthusiasts, hooting and hollering in an effort to distract the Lapwai senior. On the other end, the Wildcat faithful whispered quiet prayers or held their breath in anxious silence.
One rotation of the ball. Three dribbles. A deliberate shooting form and a smooth release.
Nothing but net.
When Kipp's shot dropped cleanly through the hole, the crowd at Vallivue High broke into an ecstatic frenzy. It didn't even matter that Kipp missed his next attempt - the Grizzlies failed to get a shot off at the final buzzer.
Chalk up another win for the Wildcats, this one by a score of 69-66.
"I just had to keep calm and play my game," Kipp said. "I knew the crowd was going to be loud, I was ready for the energy. ... I'm not the best free throw shooter, but when I need to I can get most of them. I was so glad that went in."
The victory punched Lapwai's ticket to the state championship for the fourth consecutive year. The Wildcats will look to defend their crown this morning in a 10:30 a.m. PST contest against Valley of Hazelton at the Idaho Center in Nampa.
"They're a real strong opponent, they've got a good little point guard and a good big man," Lapwai coach Bob Sobotta said of the Vikings. "They're going to be a solid opponent to play."
But the journey to the title game wasn't easy for the Wildcats (21-3), who were forced to battle back after early foul trouble and a lackluster second quarter produced an 11-point deficit.
"We were playing some pretty solid defense, but they were making some tough shots," Sobotta said. "... It was kind of survival mode, trying to stay as close as we could in that second quarter."
The turning point proved to be the next period. After being held scoreless in the first half, Emmit Taylor III exploded for 26 points down the stretch, sinking back-to-back treys with Kendall Leighton to snag a 40-38 lead.
"If I have an open look - even if I have zero points in the first half - I know I'm going to shoot it," Taylor said. "It's just that confidence."
The Wildcats led by as many as 12 in the final frame, but Paycen Jensen single-handedly launched an energetic rally with a flurry of 3-pointers in the closing moments. The Grizzly guard finished with a game-high 32 points, but a clutch performance at the charity stripe from Leighton and Kipp sealed the win.
"Oh yeah, we love this atmosphere," Taylor said of the competitive fire displayed by both squads. "We know it gets like this every time, it was going to be a physical game."
Taylor led the way for Lapwai with his 26-point effort on 10-of-17 shooting, while Kipp recorded a double-double with 13 points and 11 boards. Leighton (11) and Payton Sobotta (10) also reached double-figures in the win.
"It was just boxing out and getting those offensive rebounds," Kipp said. "I was just squeezing the orange and getting it to outlets and stuff."
Alessandro Domebo 0 0-0 0, Keith Kipp Jr. 4 5-8 13, Emmit Taylor III 10 2-2 26, Kendall Leighton 2 5-6 11, Pox Young 0 0-0 0, Cameron Sullivan 0 0-0 0, Maceo Henry 0 0-0 0, Payton Sobotta 3 4-9 10, JJ Reuben 3 1-3 9. Totals 22 17-28 69.
Ivor Gibbs 0 0-0 0, Raymond Stone 2 0-0 4, Tanner Christensen 1 2-2 5, Paycen Jensen 12 4-4 32, Jacob Reeves 0 0-0 0, Daxx Jorgensen 2 2-4 8, Garret Kladis 3 0-0 8, Camm Jorgensen 1 3-3 5, Dallon Hughes 2 0-0 4. Totals 24 11-13 66.
Lapwai 14 10 28 17-69
Grace 14 19 12 21-66
Three-point goals - Taylor III 4, Jensen 4, D. Jorgensen 2, Leighton 2, Reuben 2, Christensen. Total fouls - Grace 23, Lapwai 18. Fouled out - Christensen.
Joshua Grissom can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JoshuaGNews.