PLAY WITH HEART: Miners open Justin Gardner Memorial Tournament with thrilling win over River Valley (PHOTO GALLERY) |

PLAY WITH HEART: Miners open Justin Gardner Memorial Tournament with thrilling win over River Valley (PHOTO GALLERY)

When Justin Gardner was on the basketball court, he moved with determination and grace. He could score inside and outside, he passed with touch and precision, and he crashed the boards. Gardner had all the ability a young basketball player could ask for, but what set him apart from the rest was his tenacity and will. Simply put, he played with heart.

“Justin just embodied toughness and heart,” said Nevada Union basketball head coach Mark Casey. “His heart permeated everything, but he really had a heart for this. The competition. That guy would battle you in mini golf, in foosball, in anything, like the world depended on it. It was that heart that made him special.”

Gardner would have been a senior on the NU basketball team this year, but his life was cut short when an intoxicated driver collided with the car he and his friends were traveling in. Gardner and his friend Tyler Nielson both died in March of 2018 as a result of the collision, and another friend Dawson Fay was seriously injured, but recovered. Nielson was 17 years old. Gardner was 16 years old.

As a way to honor and memorialize Gardner, scholarships have been created in his name and the Miners basketball program developed the Justin Gardner Memorial Tournament, which tipped off three straight days of hoops action at Albert Ali Gymnasium on Thursday.

Nevada Union opened the tourney by playing the way Gardner did — with heart.

In a gym packed with their peers, the Miners struggled early but rallied in the second half to beat River Valley in thrilling fashion, 48-47.

“It feels amazing,” NU senior point guard Aidan Keros said after the win. “I’m honored to be a part of the Justin Gardner Memorial Tournament. He was one of my best friends and it’s just tragic. That one is for him.”

Trailing 36-16 in the third quarter, the Miners snapped out of their funk thanks to some hot shooting from senior Charles Wilcoxen, who drilled three 3-pointers in the quarter. Wilcoxen finished with a team-high 17 points, including four 3-pointers.

“Charles hit some big shots,” said Casey. “The moment is not too big for him.”

Down by nine to start the fourth quarter, NU’s Jaxon Horne went to work inside, scoring a pair of layups and hitting a free throw to pull NU within four.

“Jaxon Horne has been trying to find his role, had a great practice yesterday, we put him in and all that football toughness and all that athleticism just made us better,” said Casey.

Horne scored seven of his 11 points in the fourth quarter. He also grabbed five rebounds in the win.

After trading baskets, River Valley’s Puneet Bains hit a deep 3-pointer to put the Falcons up 43-37. Bains finished with a game-high 21 points in the contest.

The Miners charged back with a 3-pointer from Eli Jones and a pair of Horne free throws to pull to within one.

After a River Valley bucket, Wilcoxen flashed to the hoop and sank a tough lay in for the Miners. Bains followed with an inside bucket to push the Falcons lead back to three with 2 minutes, 11 seconds left on the clock.

After a couple of fruitless possessions by both teams, River Valley held possession with just under 50 second left. That’s when Keros’ stifling defense forced a turnover and gave possession back to the Miners.

Jones made sure the next trip down netted points as the junior guard drove to the hoop and finished off a reverse layup to pull NU to within one with 24.5 seconds left on the clock.

NU fouled River Valley on the next possession. They missed the front end of the 1-and-1 and the Miners made them pay for it.

Jones once again drove to the hoop, but this time dished the ball off to Milo Goehring as the defense collapsed, and the sophomore forward put in the eventual game winner with 11 seconds left. Goehring finished the afternoon with eight points and 11 rebounds.

River Valley had one last chance, but a contested 3-pointer was off target and the Miners corralled the rebound to clinch the win.

“They never quit,” said Casey. “Talk about Miner Magic, maybe it’s Justin Magic, I don’t know.”

Thursday was Casey’s birthday and he said the contest may have accelerated the aging process.

“I’m 55,” he noted. “But I feel like 65.”

The second half was in stark contrast to the first half in which NU scored just 14 points, but Casey knew his team had the ability to rally down the stretch.

In the first half, the Miners struggled to get their offensive flow going and River Valley was hot from the field, resulting in a 22-7 lead for the Falcons after one quarter, and a 30-14 edge at halftime.

“Play with heart. We just talked about that. We talked about Justin,” Casey said of his message to the team. “At halftime, it was really simple. I told them, ‘hey look, no one is coming. It’s just us. I know you’re not going to quit. So, just go play. The worst has already happened. You’re embarrassed. It’s uncomfortable. They’re dating your girlfriend. They’re driving your car. It’s uncomfortable. So, let’s go make them feel uncomfortable.’”

The Miners stepped up their defense in the second half and shots started to fall as they chipped away at a deficit that had ballooned to 20 points early in the third quarter.

“Our team, we never quit, and we pulled it off,” said Keros. “It was for him. Every one of us played for Justin.”

Next up for the Miners (2-1) in the four-team, round-robin tourney is a contest against Reed (Sparks, Nevada) at 6:30 p.m. today. NU then faces Burbank (Sacramento) at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“There will be nothing easy here. We’ll have to be a lot better,” said Casey. “But, we feel very fortunate to get this one, and it’s special.”

To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, email or call 530-477-4232.

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