Tucson High coach Eric Langford exited the locker room well after Friday night’s Class 6A state playoffs play-in loss to visiting Desert Ridge and sat on his bench alone with a look of bewilderment and tears in his eyes.
Matias Kroese, one of his senior captains, walked to Langford, leaned over to him and they embraced for the last time as player and coach on the night of a Tucson High game.
“That’s the type of kid you wish you had for four years,” said Langford, in his second year as head coach at his alma mater. “It’s tough. It’s a tough loss for our 11 seniors.”
Langford relived that emotional stress in the 52-51 loss to Desert Ridge that he experienced as a senior playing in the state tournament for the Badgers against Mesa Mountain View 31 years ago.
The talented team that had Langford and Val Hill as leaders blew a 22-point halftime lead against Mountain View and was eliminated in the first round game.
The Arizona Daily Star quoted Langford as saying, “We just stood still and didn’t move like we were supposed to,” when trying to explain the numerous turnovers that plagued the Badgers in the second half of that game.
Missed free throws in the last 2:13 of the game followed by two crucial turnovers in the final minute contributed to his team’s loss Friday.
Tucson went on a 7-0 run capped by baskets by Kroese on consecutive possessions to increase the lead to 49-37 with 4:40 left.
From there, the Badgers went 1 of 3 from the field with three turnovers and two missed free throws on one-and-one situations to allow Desert Ridge to rally for the quick comeback.
“We had everything in control, and it just got away from us,” Tucson senior guard Adam Gonzalez said. “The game got sped up. We started to speed up and it just slipped away. It’s a successful season for us. It is just heartbreaking to go out like that.”
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Brandon Mangahas and Morgan Wootan cut Tucson’s lead to 49-43 with 3:32 left.
Antoine Green responded with a jumper for Tucson, but the basket with 3:13 remaining, would be the last of the scoring for the Badgers.
After one of the missed free throws by the Badgers, Landon Montague converted a 3-point play with 2:09 left to cut the lead to 51-46.
Wootan made another 3-pointer after a Tucson missed free throw to make it 51-49 Badgers with 1:08 left.
“It was a similar situation to when I was a senior,” Langford said. “I’ve been telling them all year. My senior year, we were up 22 in Phoenix and we lost. I told them, ‘Don’t be like me, because I have regrets. I didn’t do this. I didn’t do that. Maybe I needed to play harder on the play.’ I’ve been telling them that all year.
“I don’t think it really sunk in. I think some of them got it but as a whole team, it came out tonight. I just hope they’re not like me 31 years later. I still regret that playoff loss.”
Tucson committed a 10-second halfcourt violation and Devin Miller capitalized on the turnover with a layup to tie the game at 51 with 18 seconds left.
Langford called a timeout with 7 seconds left for what he hoped would be a game-winning play, but a turnover occurred on the inbounds pass.
Desert Ridge’s Montague aggressively pushed the ball down the court and found Miller on the wing. Miller tried the layup and missed but a foul was called against a Tucson defender with only 0.3 seconds left.
Miller made the first free throw to put Desert Ridge ahead for the first time in the game. He missed the second free throw. Langford tried to call timeout when Tucson rebounded the ball but the referees ruled time expired.
Tucson, the No. 12 seed, finished its season 18-6 overall while Desert Ridge kept surviving with a 12-16 record as the No. 21 seed.
The difficult loss is one that Langford used as a teaching tool for his few returners next year and the large senior class of whom he really had only a full season to coach.
Langford’s first season last year was a tumultuous one because of numerous disruptions because of COVID-19 protocols. The Badgers finished 5-9.
“I really don’t know if they played in a game as big as this one,” Langford said of his team. “I mean, some of it could have been jitters. Desert Ridge came to play. I can’t knock them. Every time we made a run, they hit an open 3. So those are the little things about basketball. We dig in on one of those 3’s, we win the game.”
Just like Langford went on to succeed following that humbling loss to Mountain View in 1991, the Badgers must move forward in their lives.
Langford went on to play at Eastern Arizona College after averaging 25.3 points a game as a senior with the Badgers. He eventually transferred to Grand Canyon and averaged 16.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 57 games with the Antelopes from 1994-96. A 13-year professional career followed overseas and in Mexico.
“The coaches and Coach Langford day in and day out are the best coaches,” Gonzalez said. “Tucson High made such a great decision hiring Coach Langford. I just put my blood, sweat and tears into this gym for him.”
Before becoming the head coach of his alma mater, Langford was a coach at Leading Edge Academy in Gilbert.
He played with Arizona football great Sean Harris during his basketball career with the Badgers.
His dad Kelly Langford was a football and track star at Tucson High in the early 1970s and went on to success in track at Arizona. The elder Langford, who was part of the Badgers’ 12-0 state championship football team in 1970, coached basketball and track at Tucson High before becoming a principal for Vail Middle School in 1989. He is now the senior academic officer for student services at the Tucson Unified School District and the president of the Tucson Urban League.
“I’m big on history. I watch a lot of basketball,” Eric Langford said. “I study a lot of basketball and I’m big on history. My first day here, I got a shirt that said ‘We’re taking it back to 1969 (when Tucson last won a state title).’ Wearing that Tucson name across the jersey meant a lot of pride to me. I took it serious every game, every practice.
“We have the oldest high school in Arizona. You have to have some type of pride in it.”
Kroese was emotional when he spoke of the impact Langford and the Tucson High coaching staff made on him in the two years he played for them.
“He’s taught me a lot. He’s taught me a lot about how to deal with adversity,” Kroese said of his coach. “He taught me how to be a better man. All the coaches have helped me out so much beyond basketball. I’ll never forget them. I’ll always remember this team.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.