CAMERON — The Bryan Vikings are partying like it’s 2003.
Bryan held on to beat District 18-5A foe Waco 73-71 in a Class 5A boys basketball regional quarterfinal Tuesday at Yoe Gym, sending the Vikings to their first regional tournament in 15 years. It was also Bryan’s first victory over Waco this season after dropping both games during district play.
The Vikings (26-9) will face 10th-ranked Fort Bend Elkins (28-11), which beat Houston Madison 84-61, in the 5A Region III semifinals at 5 p.m. Friday at Houston’s Delmar Fieldhouse.
“Getting to the regional tournament is huge,” Bryan head coach Chris Jones said. “I was an assistant on that staff [in 2003] with [former Bryan head coach] John Reese when we went. We’ve had a lot of good teams since then and a lot of good players. For these guys to come together [and get this far with] a new group with great chemistry, it’s just great.”
A hotly-contested first half in which neither team led by more than five points ended with Bryan leading 34-30. After the Lions (22-15) pulled within a point out of the break, the Vikings grabbed control with a 10-3 run during a 2-minute stretch in the middle of the third quarter.
Senior Zach Nutall, who struggled from the field in the first half, keyed the run with 8 of his team-high 23 points. The 6-3 guard slashed to the basket for a layup with over four minutes left in the period to give Bryan a 42-39 lead and then drained a 3-pointer on the next possession. Waco senior AJ West answered with a deep 3 of his own, but Nutall came back and hit a pull-up trey with a hand in his face.
Bryan junior Johnathon Wells grabbed a steal and scored a layup to extend the lead to 50-42, forcing the Lions to take a timeout with 2:35 left in the third.
Nutall scored 16 points after halftime to help the Vikings hold on.
“Me being a scorer, I just knew I had to stay locked in – makes, misses, none of it matters,” Nutall said. “I just knew I was going to get going. I had the worst half of my life in the first half, and my team had a great half so we were still up. So I just came out in the third and the fourth ready to make plays, and that’s what happened.”
Yoe Gym reached a fever pitch for the entire fourth quarter as both fans and players took turns raising the intensity of the atmosphere. Waco made its move with an 8-2 run that started with a 3-pointer from West and ended with a three-point play from Ty’ric Crosby to cut Bryan’s lead to 62-59 with 3:31 left.
A 6-0 Bryan run capped by a three-point play from junior guard Jaqwan Washington gave the Vikings a 68-59 lead, but a putback and a pair of free throws from West appeared to give the Lions a chance trailing 68-63 with 1:10 left. Nutall answered with a dunk off an assist from LaTravean Thomas and the Vikings hit enough free throws down the stretch to hold on.
The Lions didn’t go down without a fight, though, as they mustered a layup from West and 3-pointers from Jordan Fuller and Crosby in the final minute, with Crosby’s coming with under 5 seconds left. The Vikings then held the ball on the base line until Waco called a timeout with 0.4 seconds left. Wells then threw the inbound pass all the way down the court, where Nutall caught it and threw it up in celebration.
“The crowd was amazing and at times caused us problems because we couldn’t hear each other on the bench,” Jones said with a laugh. “We’ve only got four or five guys on this team that have been to the playoffs before. To come up and play that huge [late in the game] in the third round shows good character. They’ve bought into it all year and we’re here, so I’m just happy for them.”
West led the Lions with 23 points and nine rebounds. Crosby scored 20, and Dale Smith had 14 points and five boards.
Washington scored 21 points, and Kayfon Hornes had 11. Nutall led the Vikings with eight rebounds, and Wells scored six points to go with seven rebounds.
“It’s a blessing to go this far,” Nutall said. “It hasn’t been done in so long in Bryan High history, and I’m glad that my team, my senior year, we could do it. We’re just hungry, and we play for each other. We love each other. We all just bought into the game plan. We all bought into the program, and we all bought into the success we could have if we just all stuck with one another.”