Before the season began, no one would have predicted that Noble would be in the Class 5A state basketball tournament, which begins Thursday in Sapulpa.
In the pre-season, Noble was ranked near the bottom of the 32 schools in Class 5A, said Bears' coach Kenny Smith.
“If you had said back in October that Noble was going to make the state tournament, there is not a coach in Oklahoma that would have believed that,” Smith said.
But thanks to a 3-pointer at the buzzer Saturday night by senior guard Jared Palmer, Noble upset No. 6 Coweta, 39-36, in overtime of the area consolation finals, earning the Bears their first state tournament berth since 1995.
The shot left Palmer's hand just as the buzzer sounded, or so it was ruled. Even watching the play afterward on video, Smith says he can't tell whether the shot should have counted or not.
“He just threw up a prayer at the buzzer and it went in,” Smith said of Palmer's game winning heave. “There are no lights on the backboard (in Bixby) so it's a hard call for the referee. It's just one of those shots that could have went either way.”
The night before against Skiatook, point guard Leland Palmer – Jared's younger brother -sank an elbow jumper with 10 seconds left to give the Bears a 46-44 victory. It was the only time Noble led in the game.
Leland Palmer is the team's best player, having been named first team all-Suburban Conference. The junior point guard is a three-year starter, averaging 16 points and four assists per game.
But during the playoffs, the team's best player has been 6-2 forward Devin Wheeler, a post player who averaged a double-double in points and rebounds during the season.
“He's really lit it up and played well in the playoffs,” Smith said. “He's been the best player on the court every time we've played in the playoffs so far.”
The Bears, who entered the playoffs with an 11-12 record, may have had some good fortune on the buzzer-beater against Coweta, but Noble is overdue for some good luck.
For the past 18 seasons, Noble has been one of the worst high school basketball teams in Oklahoma.
The Bears' opening round win in the regional tournament was Noble's first victory in the playoffs in 18 years. In fact, the Bears have won very few games in the last 18 years.
Before this season, last year's eight-win total was the most by the Bears since 1995, Smith said. Many of those seasons since have been just one or two win seasons and even winless seasons, he said.
When Smith accepted the head coaching job five years ago, Noble had one of the worst basketball programs in the state.
At the time, Smith's experience as a basketball coach was limited to one year as former Noble coach Leroy Combs' assistant and two years as the freshmen coach.
Smith was the offensive coordinator on Noble's football staff when he decided to apply for the position as head basketball coach.
“I don't know what kind of applicants they had,” Smith said. “It had been a couple of months since the other coach resigned and we still didn't have anybody. I thought I could do a good job.
“I thought we had kids here who could play. I thought we just weren't giving them a chance to be successful because we had such a high turnover in coaches.”
Smith became Noble's fourth coach in four seasons. He admits rebuilding the program was much harder then he thought it would be.
To learn the game, he attended basketball clinics, watched YouTube videos and read as much as possible.
When Noble would get immediately eliminated from the playoffs after one game the past four years, Smith would visit several other teams in the Suburban Conference and watch them practice. No coach ever denied him the opportunity to watch and learn.
Smith stayed the course, even when the Bears continued to lose.
“Those first three years were tough,” Smith said. “You question yourself every day.”
Now, Noble has the chance to make a school history with a win in the state tournament. The Bears are 0-2 in their previous state tournament appearances in 1991 and 1995.
Noble (14-13) meets Lawton MacArthur at 7 p.m. Thursday at Sapulpa High School.
“I just kept telling myself it's going to pay off sometime if we keep working the way we do, and it finally has,” Smith said. “The kids have worked really hard and it's very rewarding to see them succeed in the playoffs.”