Every one of them has been a crusher, the most recent jaw-dropping defeat pushing a promising season to the brink.
Buzzer-beater losses have jolted Matt Lyon, the soul of the boys’ basketball team at Rio Americano High. Rio lost two games in January by last-second shots, then suffered yet another defeat when the Raiders’ opponent made three free throws with a fraction of a second remaining.
February couldn’t possibly get worse, could it? Inexplicably, it did for Lyon – one of the region’s top players – and the Raiders.
Days after Lyon hit perhaps the season’s most improbable shot – an off-balance, catch-and-shoot 45-footer off an inbound pass – to beat rival El Camino 57-55 at the horn, bewilderment and despair barged back into the Raiders’ postgame mood.
Playing in his final home game Tuesday on Senior Night, Lyon was his hard-charging norm, scoring 28 points as Rio held a one-point lead late against Christian Brothers. The Falcons crashed the party when Jamarri Jackson raced down the court and fed Elias King for an inside basket at the horn for a 64-63 win.
I feel like it has to be some sort of joke, and somebody will come out and be like, ‘Got ya!’ But it’s not.
Matt Lyon, Rio Americano guard
The image of a stunned Lyon – face down on his beloved hardwood floor at Rio – captured the mood of his mixed season. He was the last to leave the floor, leaning against the wall, exhaling, wondering. He was spent.
“I’m all out of emotion,” Lyon said. “I feel like it has to be some sort of joke, and somebody will come out and be like, ‘Got ya!’ But it’s not. I’m just happy with the young guys because despite us losing, they are making huge strides, and that’s all I can ask for. No doubt, this hurts more than anything, especially when there’s not one, or two or three but four of these.”
How Lyon has handled defeat that has defined his character. Not once has he blamed a teammate after defeat, instead offering his congratulations to the winners: Scott Trembinski for his beyond-half-court heave and swish to lift Lincoln past Rio 47-44 on Jan. 8, Ken Olsem for his winning three-pointer for El Camino in a 56-54 win Jan. 20, Vista del Lago for converting three free throws just before the horn for a 67-64 overtime triumph Jan. 27, then Christian Brothers for the latest stunner.
A four-year varsity player surrounded by eager yet inexperienced teammates, Lyon is so relentless in his drive to push the Raiders (9-13) into the playoffs and to get good grades (he holds a 3.7 GPA) that he has no time for girlfriends. He is a basketball purist who jokes that his heart is made of game-worn Wilson leather. But the leather heart is bruised these days.
“Matt lives and breathes this game,” Rio coach Chris Jones said. “For all we have been through this season, it is a testament to Matt’s leadership and pride that we are still fighting every night.”
The Raiders need to win out to ensure a shot at the Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berth, and Lyon vows that his team will not quit.
“Matt’s a great leader, a great player,” teammate Jared Hook said. “We feel for him for some of these games, and we felt great for him (to beat El Camino on Feb. 4). It was his time.”
“No one works harder and wants this more than Matt,” teammate Ryan Steele said.
Jones, the Raiders coach, said Lyon represents the underdog. Lyon is barely on the recruiting radar at 6-foot, though he does have interest from Chico State and Sacramento State. He is averaging 20 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“Matt’s the norm, what 99 percent of kids in the country are like height-wise, athletic-wise, but Matt’s different because of how much he cares and puts into this,” Jones said. “You root for guys like this.”
(Matt) hit that shot, and there’s a million kids on him, everyone trying to give him a hug or a high-five. People here love him.
Chris Jones, Rio Americano’s boys basketball coach
Lyon’s 45-footer against El Camino is something the Raiders will not forget. It is every player’s dream to can a winner and get mobbed.
“He hit that shot, and there’s a million kids on him, everyone trying to give him a hug or a high-five,” Jones said. “People here love him.”
Lyon scored 13 of his team’s final 15 points against El Camino, finishing with 29. El Camino thought it had won, walking off the floor with the ball, but the Eagles were called for traveling with one second left. Rio didn’t have a timeout to call a play. So the Raiders inbounded the ball to Lyon and hoped. Jones called it a “Hail Mary, Matt play.”
“Once that shot goes down, you think, ‘Wow, that really happened?’ ” Lyon recalled. “Then, you see everyone going crazy, the feeling of redemption, relief and karma. I know what it feels like, both ways. I didn’t want to be a bad sport and run to the El Camino crowd, but I did run by so they can feel it a little.”
Lyon said he was careful not to come across as a poor sport. El Camino didn’t think he crossed the line. In fact, Olsem, who beat Rio weeks earlier with a dramatic three, admired Lyon’s feat.
“He deserved that after what he and his team has been through this year,” said Olsem, a senior guard. “Yeah, he did owe me one, too. Almost in the same spot, too!”
Lyon regularly attends other local high school and college games when his schedule allows, soaking up player tendencies and ideas.
“I love to be around the game, to study it, to see what goes on,” Lyon said. “Besides, you never know what you’ll see.”