For the past two seasons, Capital High School boys basketball coach Brian Vandiver has done his best to build a family atmosphere within the program.
And that family experienced the scariest of moments Tuesday night in its own gymnasium.
Capital survived to beat North Thurston, 64-59, to clinch outright the SSC 3A title — its first league championship since 2008.
In fact, the last team to upend Capital was the Rams — nearly a month ago, 68-66, in Lacey. The Cougars avenged that loss Tuesday, winning their seventh game in a row.
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But the result — and it was a back-and-forth, barn-burning 32 minutes of action — took a backseat after what happened with 1 minute, 14 seconds remaining in the game.
With North Thurston trailing 58-53, Rams guard Gunner Nielsen got loose on the right side, drove to the baseline and scored on an underhand scoop basket.
Capital’s T.J. Mickelson — the team’s best player and first-year point guard — went up for a rebound, just in case it missed.
Nielsen clipped Mickelson inadvertently, but sent the Cougars’ standout into a somersault, crashing head-first into the hard court surface.
Mickelson laid there for the next 25 minutes, motionless, amid an eerily quiet and very concerned home crowd.
“He wasn’t moving initially. But then he regained feeling. He had a lot of neck pain, which is good — because he can feel pain,” Vandiver said. “The way he landed, it could have been a lot worse.”
Finally, after paramedics arrived to roll Mickelson over onto a long backboard, all of the Capital players walked over to where their fallen leader was. The guard was eventually placed on a stretcher, and taken away to St. Peter Hospital.
Vandiver said Mickelson suffered a neck injury and possibly a broken collarbone.
“If that’s all it is, that is a good thing,” Vandiver said.
North Thurston coach Tim Brown had a closer look at the play from his bench, and knew it was something pretty serious.
“Nobody feels good tonight,” Brown said.
And yet, the two teams had to finish the game. They were given three minutes of warmup time, and the Cougars clinched it by making six of eight free throw attempts — three apiece by Matt Mickelson — T.J.’s brother — and Chris Penner.
“These kids are extremely tight knit. We have each others’ backs,” Vandiver said. “I cannot imagine how tough that must have been for those five guys on the floor.
“The last two years, we’ve done a great job of becoming a family. They did not let T.J. down.”