By JOSH RIZZO
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
WARSAW, Ill. -- Thirty minutes before the West Hancock boys basketball team boarded a bus headed for Beardstown to play in the Class 2A sectional championship, Titans coach Reno Pinkston decided to have an impromptu practice.
He needed to be sure the Titans were prepared if they needed a game-winning or game-tying 3-pointer, and he wanted them to be confident they could pull it off.
Their success rate in practice didn't necessarily do that.
"We went over it probably 30 times," Titans all-state forward Paxton Harmon said. "I made two of them out of the 10 or 15 times I shot. Austin Hardy probably made two of the 10 or 15 times he shot it.
"It was a quality play. We just weren't shooting good."
Truth be told, that didn't bother Harmon.
He had already played out the scenario in his head.
"Going into the playoffs, I thought ‘If I miss it, I miss it. If I make it, great,'" he said. "There's nothing I can lose really."
Yet, there was so much to gain, like a defining moment for an incredible career.
West Hancock trailed Riverton by three points with 3.8 seconds remaining in regulation when the play that had hardly worked hours before had to be tried.
The Titans' Coy Dorothy inbounded the ball to Harmon moving toward the basket. He took one dribble, absorbed a little contact and got off the shot.
It hit nothing but net.
"I didn't expect it to go in," said Harmon, the 2013 Herald-Whig boys basketball Player of the Year who finished with a career-high 43 points in that game. "It wasn't a shot I felt it go in as soon as it left my hands. When it went in, it was one of the best feelings I ever had during a basketball season. It was awesome knowing I kept my season alive for another four minutes."
Four more minutes was all the Titans had, but their 27-6 record and first regional title in the five-year existence of the West Hancock co-op was a credit to Harmon's leadership and skill.
"His junior year, I saw that he started being more aggressive without special and set plays being called for him," Pinkston said. "I always knew he'd be a really good player. He became a next-level player this season."
There was little doubt about Harmon's impact on the floor. West Hancock beat Illini West three of the four times they met this season, including a 61-39 victory in the Class 2A Warsaw Regional title game.
During those victories, Harmon averaged 23.6 points per game.
The one time the Chargers got the better of their county rival -- Illini West won 51-38 in the Macomb Western Holiday Tournament -- Harmon sprained his ankle and scored only two points.
"I think his length and his skill set made him incredibly hard to stop," Illini West coach John Hughs said. "Any time you have a kid that is 6-4 or 6-5 that can handle the ball and shoot at our level of basketball is tough to defend. The best part about Paxton is no matter if they're up 10, down 10, down 20, up 20, he plays the game the same. The kid doesn't get razzed or distressed."
The ankle injury was just a momentary blip in a season in which Harmon frustrated opponents.
He averaged 20.5 points and 5.7 points per game, earning first team all-state honor from the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association and second team all-state honors from the Associated Press.
Fueling his desire and intensity was a motivation to win. During his junior season, West Hancock was seeded second in the regional in both baseball and basketball. Both times, the Titans got upset in the semifinals.
The losses, especially in baseball, left him with a sour taste in his mouth.
"My main thing was I wanted to win a regional and create a postseason run I could remember for the rest of my life," Harmon said. "Last year, in baseball, we were the No. 2 seed and we lost in the first round of regionals to Illini West. I was sore. We all expected to win the regional. I wanted to have some postseason success in my career."
With that weighing on him, the basketball season didn't get off to a storybook start.
A twisted right ankle limited Harmon during the season-opening Gully Transportation Tip-Off Tournament/Suns Classic. He missed the championship game as the Titans lost 59-20 to Quincy Notre Dame as the Titans struggled without his presence.
"His willingness to defer to his teammates was quite evident," Pinkston said. "Basketball's not complicated. I keep it simple. If he can score on his guy, do it. If he's unable to, pass it to a teammate. We call it Forrest Gump basketball. If someone is in your way pass it. If not, shoot it. The first thing you have to be willing to do is pass the ball. His willingness to pass the ball made us the team we were."
Getting back to 100 percent took time. Harmon didn't believe he started to get healthy until West Hancock beat Keokuk Jan. 22. The victory was the start of a 11-game winning streak for West Hancock. During that streak, the Titans won 45-39 at Quincy Notre Dame with Harmon scoring 20 points.
It was the first of two payback missions Harmon was on. The other came against Illini West in the regional championship, although Harmon scored only 14 points in that game as took on the role of distributor.
After the game, Hughs told Harmon he would sleep easier knowing he wouldn't have to prepare for him anymore.
"I shook his hand and wished him luck at sectionals," Hughs said. "I also told him I was glad I didn't have to coach against him anymore."
There are plenty of coaches who share Hughs' sentiment.
There are others who wish Harmon's father, Robert, hadn't gone through a mid-life crisis.
Several years ago, Robert envisioned having his own racquetball room and had the space in his basement to make it happen.
The project evolved into so much more. There's a small basketball court roughly the size of half of a regulation court and a batting cage with 20-foot ceilings.
"It was a mid-life crisis. I had a wild hair of an idea that I always wanted a racquetball room," Robert said. "That's part of the design. The kids were young enough when I built it to shoot baskets. It was nice for them to have an indoor court so they could practice in the winter instead of going outside."
When they moved into the house, the gym wasn't finished. It became a project that the Harmons completed together, taking roughly three years.
"That's always been my dad's dream, to have a basketball court," Paxton said. "He loves baseball, too, and that's where I got it from. He put in a pitching machine that feeds itself and put that all together. We helped out by sanding the floor and doing everything with the floor and putting it together. My older brothers, Josh and Cody, helped out a lot."
Paxton spent a lot of time in the winter working on his game, both for basketball and baseball.
With the end of his senior year approaching, Paxton isn't sure what direction he will take.
But he created his memory.
"It was an awesome feeling. This is the first time a Titan team has won a regional," Paxton said. "It's going to be nice to remember we were the first to do it as a Titan. It was the first time anyone on our team won a regional in any sport."