It’s safe to say the South Central senior wasn’t alone in that line of thinking.
The Trojans have a talented cast of players, led by standouts Simon Blair and David Lamoreaux. Those two didn’t disappoint in Tuesday’s Division IV district semifinal vs. Margaretta at Robert L. Haas Gymnasium at Willard High School.
But with the game tied in overtime and under a minute to go, it was Cooper — who had scored just 27 points in 23 games this season — who was the difference.
He came in off the bench for the fouled out Alex Holland and scored six straight points in a 32-second span in the extra session, helping lift South Central to a 57-53 overtime win.
South Central (20-4) — which trailed by 13 points twice in the game — advanced to Friday’s 7 p.m. district championship game vs. Colonel Crawford (21-3), a 51-39 winner over Lucas, back at Willard High School.
It marks the first district title game appearance for the program since the 1996-97 season.
Cooper bulled his way past the much bigger Margaretta front court to get an offensive rebound and putback basket with 52.6 seconds left, which gave the Trojans a 53-51 lead.
After a defensive stand at the other end, Cooper then got the ball back on a rebound and was fouled with 34.4 seconds left. He made both free throws for a two-possession lead (55-51).
When Margaretta missed yet again, Cooper found his way to the basketball for the rebound and was fouled with 17.7 seconds left.
Like he’s been a natural all season, he made both foul shots again to all but seal the win, pushing the lead up to 57-51.
During the season, Cooper was just 2 of 6 at the free-throw line. On Tuesday, he was 4 for 4 in the final minute of an overtime district semifinal.
“I wouldn’t have been in this position without those guys scoring and playing defense the way they do,” Cooper said of his teammates. ““I just had to believe, which is a big thing we’ve been saying. There was a lot of trust — I know my teammates trust and believe in me, so I had to trust and believe in myself.”
When the Trojans started running into foul trouble, head coach Brett Seidel said it was just a feel of who gave his team a defensive presence, as opposed to offense.
That is why he went with Cooper.
“And he was able to not only give us a defensive presence, but made some serious shots for us down the stretch,” Seidel said. “I’m telling you, I don’t think he’s ever made four free throws in a row, not even in a practice.”
South Central trailed 10-2 in the first quarter and 26-13 with 3:21 left in the first half. The Trojans were able to get the deficit to single digits, 28-19, at halftime on a driving layup by Blair with 20.1 seconds left in the half.
The Polar Bears (17-7) went up 34-21 after a 3-pointer by Jake Leibacher with 7:01 left in the third quarter — but that is went the Trojans took over.
David Lamoreaux scored just six seconds later, then after a steal in the backcourt, Isaiah Seidel scored two quick points for the Trojans. Lamoreaux then scored a deep two-pointer, and Blair was fouled after yet another Margaretta turnover.
He made both free throws to bring the Trojans within five (34-29), then Seidel and Blair again went back-to-back to cap a 12-0 scoring run and bring their team within 34-33 with 2:51 left in the third.
Margaretta stemmed the tide by scoring two of the final three baskets of the quarter to take a 38-35 lead into the fourth. However, the Trojans weren’t done.
Trailing 40-37, freshman Sam Seidel made his only shot of the game, a 3-pointer to tie the game with 7:13 remaining.
South Central trailed 44-42 with under five minutes left — but that is when their 1-2 punch ignited the Trojan fan base. Lamoreaux scored to tie the game, then Blair got a steal and made a sprint to the basket.
He was fouled, and was able to put the shot up and in — then made his foul shot with 2:32 left. The 47-44 lead was the first time in the game South Central had led.
“We answered back right away both times we got behind, but were able to keep the momentum there in the second half,” coach Seidel said. “Obviously Simon is a special player and they did everything they could to keep him out of the lane, but he still found a way to get to the rim.”
South Central led 48-44 with 1:10 left, and Margaretta head coach Steve Keller was issued a technical foul — shortly after he had received a bench warning.
Blair split the foul shots, and did so again with 28 seconds left to keep the Trojans up 49-46. But Margaretta’s Nick Leibacher hit a big 3 from the top of the key with 15.4 seconds left to tie the game, and a last-ditch play by the Trojans was short, forcing the overtime.
Blair scored right away in the extra session, which Coach Seidel said was critical for his team’s psyche.
“We oppressed upon them that (Mitch) Raifsnider was out,” Seidel said of Margaretta’s center, who fouled out with 1:10 left in the fourth. “They were getting ready to play without their 6-foot-7 double-double in the paint, so we had a four-minute game to guard their shooters and try to get a basket early.
“That’s why we went baseline right away, our isolation for Simon,” he added. “He got to the rim again, finished and got us the lead back — which kind of put the pressure back on them. That allowed our kids to relax and D up.”
The Bears eventually tied it with 1:17 left on two Nick Leibacher free throws, which set the stage for Cooper’s heroics.
South Central also trailed by 10 points in last Friday’s 65-60 sectional championship win over St. Mary Central Catholic.
“The kids have this word right now, just saying ‘believe,’ and that’s what they’re sticking to,” Seidel said. “They get down 10 last week and down 13 twice tonight — and then I thought out kids really dug in defensively.”
Blair had 19 points for the Trojans, with Lamoreaux adding 16, and Isaiah Seidel scored nine points.
“I’m just really, really happy for my kids, who have put a lot of work individually and collectively,” Seidel said. “We had a really good summer and have been on the grind ever since, so I’m just really happy for them.”
Mitch Raifsnider 4-0—8; James Weaver 5-2—13; Dylan Morris 4-1—9; Nick Leibacher 5-2—13; Bryceten Hedden 1-0—2; Jake Leibacher 2-2—8. TOTALS 21-7—53.
SOUTH CENTRAL (20-4)
Simon Blair 7-5—19; Sam Seidel 1-0—3; Alex Holland 2-0—4; David Lamoreaux 8-0—16; Isaiah Seidel 4-0—9; Tycen Cooper 1-4—6. TOTALS 23-9—57.
Margaretta 10 13 10 11 4 — 53
So. Central 9 10 16 14 8 — 57
3-point FGs: (SC) Sam Seidel, Holland, I. Seidel