DES MOINES, Iowa | When East High took the court on Friday in a Class 4A semifinal against West Des Moines Valley, a name had me searching my memory.
Reese Skinner. A guard for the Valley Tigers, who tripped up East, 64-54, and one day later finished runner-up to Iowa City West.
Skinner's father is Troy Skinner, a 1988 graduate of tiny Palmer High School in Pocahontas County. I watched Troy Skinner play for Palmer in the state basketball tournament 30 years ago today.
Skinner and his running-mate, the late great Brian Pearson, led the Panthers to three state Class A championships and a 103-game winning streak that still stands as Iowa's best. None was more dramatic than win No. 50 in that streak, an opening-round escape of Lost Nation in the 1987 state tournament.
Palmer won when Jamie Peterson grabbed a last-second air-ball and put the rebound in the basket while being fouled. Peterson's bucket tied the score at 62-62. Peterson, an 85 percent free throw shooter as a sophomore, then stepped to the free throw line with no time remaining. His charity toss bounced on the rim twice before falling through the net for a 63-62 Palmer triumph.
"Houdini, is that what you call that?" exclaimed Alden Skinner, Palmer's head coach and the father of Troy Skinner. "Its the old saying: It's better to be lucky than good. I'll tell you, we were lucky."
I remember watching in venerable Veterans Auditorium that day as Lost Nation, fueled by a 22-point first half by Joel Gohlmann, raced to a 35-25 lead as the Panthers struggled to find their impeccable shooting touch. (Palmer was the first program in Iowa to fully embrace the three-point shot as its lead weapon. The shot became part of Iowa high school hoops in 1982. Brian Pearson made 297 of 570 three-pointers in his career, connecting on 52 percent from "deep.")
Troy Skinner, a future Iowa Hawkeye, scored 15 of his game-high 33 points in the fourth quarter to key the comeback. However, Skinner made only five of 14 three-pointers on the day. Pearson, a future Iowa State Cyclone who later served as an assistant coach at Morningside College, made four of 20 shots that day.
I recall Pearson being stymied in the right corner as the clock ticked down. An ambidextrous player, he hoisted a desperation shot with his left hand toward the rim as the clock showed 2 seconds remaining. As luck would have it for Palmer, the shot missed everything and Peterson, who was on the weak side, caught the ball and made the put-back.
Cary Gruenwald, who had 24 points for Lost Nation, committed the foul, whistled by Sioux Cityan Von Bornholtz. (I remember the play: It was clearly a foul.)
Lost Nation, appearing in its first state tournament in 36 years, could have put the game away, but the Bobcats failed to make the front end of three one-and-one free throws in the final 1:37 of the contest.
The game was a treat for the ages for the thousands of fans, like me, who turned out that day at Veterans Auditorium, a site often called "The Barn" by Iowans.
That week, Palmer's team was featured in segments that aired nationally on "Good Morning America." The Panthers' post-season run including a key early stop in Albert City, Iowa, to meet the Albert City-Truesdale Hurricanes, a top-10 team coached by Dean Christiansen and featuring starters Steve Eddie, Jim Demers, Hadley Hartje, Todd Kruckman and B.J. Habben. I was a freshman at Buena Vista at the time, covering the game for the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune.
The late Dick Schapp, who headed coverage for ABC Sports at that time, attended the game in Albert City, part of his reporting on Palmer High School, which had 35 students in grades 10-12 at the time. Palmer began sharing with neighboring Pomeroy in the 1989-90 school year, while Lost Nation merged with the Midland of Wyoming district in 1993.
After the last-second escape past Lost Nation, Palmer defeated Wellsburg and then Marquette, West Point for the state title, the second championship in a 3-year span that ended with Skinner and Pearson celebrating titles as sophomores, juniors and seniors. Both players are members of the Iowa High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
Palmer didn't lose again until the state semifinals in 1989 when Keota, the future champion, registered a 60-56 victory.
Troy Skinner now works as an attorney and resides in Waukee, Iowa, west of Des Moines. Brian Pearson, meantime, was only 27 when he lost his battle against cancer in 1997, just 10 years removed from one of the most memorable games in state tournament history.