North Thurston High School is three wins away from finishing a perfect regular season.
And the sixth-ranked Rams won a thriller Wednesday night in Lacey to keep their coveted undefeated streak alive.
Gunner Nielsen batted at a loose ball with five seconds remaining, scooped a pass from teammate Tim Tenkley on the deflection, and stormed toward the hoop.
The senior point guard rolled a layup off of his fingertips as time expired, lifting the Rams to a 67-65 win over crosstown rival Timberline on the road.
“There was a little bit of a struggle for the ball,” Nielsen said. “I kind of tipped it, then my teammate Tim passed it to me. I saw the time and I just laid it up.”
Timberline was in disbelief.
North Thurston students rushed the floor and coach Tim Brown hugged his assistants before turning toward the crowd and lifting his fist in the air in triumph.
The Rams (17-0, 11-0) all but sewed up the 3A South Sound Conference title with the win, with games against Yelm, Capital and Peninsula remaining.
One more win guarantees at least a share of the league championship with ninth-ranked Timberline (13-5, 9-3). Two wins the title outright.
“This is what we wanted to do,” Nielsen said. “We knew coming in here it was going to be a tough game, so we played as hard as we could, and did what we could to get the win.”
Timberline carried the lead for most of the first half, holding the Rams to 4-for-14 shooting in the first quarter.
Production picked up before the half, and Clay Christian — who finished with a team-high 21 points — scored three straight baskets to give the Rams a 28-24 edge at the break.
The Blazers rallied in the third quarter, regaining the lead with 2:11 to go on an Erik Stevenson 3-pointer from the corner. The Wichita State signee finished with a game-high 24 points.
Nine more lead changes occurred during the game’s final 10 minutes.
“It was a well-fought game,” Timberline coach Allen Thomas said. “Either team could have won tonight — we just ended up being on the short end of the stick.”
Tenkley took the lead back for the Rams on a 3-pointer with 45 seconds remaining, only to have Eli Morton answer with a triple at the other end to put the Blazers back in front by a basket.
Tenkley, who added 16 points, then hit a pair of free throws with 22.3 seconds remaining to knot the score at 65-65.
Stevenson’s 3-pointer from the corner on the ensuing possession bounced off of the rim, and the loose ball was tipped several times before Nielsen gained possession and scored the game-winner.
“It’s a valiant effort by them,” Thomas said. “No matter what we did, or how many times we took a lead, they stuck to the plan. That shows how much they are willing to work together.”
Spencer added 19 points for the Rams, while Morton had 15 for Timberline.
Timberline remains in second place, and is in position to finish with the No. 2 seed into the district playoffs, while the Rams can clinch the No. 1 seed with one more win.
“We’re in a good position,” Nielsen said. “We’re excited. We’re going to finish off these three games, play our best basketball, and get ready for playoffs.”
NO. 6 NORTH THURSTON
NO. 9 TIMBERLINE
NT – Spencer 19, Christian 21, Tenkley 16, Stone 4, Ponder 2, Wallace 2, Nielsen 2
T – Rouse 5, Campau 6, Morton 15, Stevenson 24, Joubert 6, Warick 3, Faalogo 6