WEST VALLEY CITY — Matt Barnes methodically makes his way around the solemn locker room grasping the hands of the teary-eyed teenagers who've relied on him for guidance all season.
It is affection, admiration and consolation the Olympus head coach offers his players after the Titans lost the 4A state championship game 58-50 to the top-ranked Orem Tigers Saturday afternoon at the Maverik Center.
"What a ride," said Barnes as tears shimmer in his own eyes. "No one expected this of us. The only ones who expected this of us, is us. We knew every game that we could beat anyone and anyone could beat us."
Emotion threatened to get the best of him repeatedly as he tried to sum up what it meant to coach the Olympus Titans to the 4A title game after a 1-3 start to the season.
"My seven seniors were fantastic," he said, his voice breaking momentarily as he glances toward them. "This team battled all the way to the end, and I can't thank them enough."
Barnes sentiment about his seniors and the season is sprinkled with post-game analysis. Orem's Jordan Darger hurt them in the paint in the first half, and the Tiger defense was stifling for his post players. That 3-pointer just before half, as well as the one at the beginning of the third quarter, well, they hurt the Titans' momentum.
But his players kept finding ways to stay in the game — timely 3s by Jackson Coleman, Jake Bengtzen and Nick Barney and toughness in the paint from forwards Will Cannon and Parker Rawlings.
"That's all part of the game," he said after rattling off those things that worked for the Titans and those that didn't. "We never gave up," said Barnes. "Something can always happen, hit a three, get a turnover, you can't give up hope. You play hard and take your chances."
And then he adds what everyone in the room feels, "It's never easy to lose."
Outside that locker room the Tigers and their fans celebrated the 56-year-old school's first state title. The Olympus fans, who've waited 59 years, will have to be satisfied with second place.
But despite the heartbreak of ending the season with a loss, Barnes felt there was much to be proud of this winter.
"There is nothing like high school basketball," he said, a smile spreading across his face.
His sadness is for his seniors. As a coach, he's been fortunate enough to stand on the sidelines of a state championship game three times.
"But for them," he said of the players, "it's once in a lifetime."
His counsel for them was to savor it — every moment, even the heartbreak because at least they had a chance to play for the title.
"It's what you coach for," he said, "This is why you do it. We had such a great run. Look in the stands, look at that support. This has been one of the funnest years I've ever had in coaching."
His players try to see past the pain.
"It was a great year," said Cannon, who played an impressive game with 13 points, nine rebounds, two assists and two steals. "It feels great to have this experience with friends. Someday we'll look back and laugh."2 comments on this story
He starts to talk about how they fought, how they believed and then he breaks down in sobs. He manages to rattle off the names of his teammates, to commend them for their ability to "keep fighting."
"Just to never give up hope," said Cannon of what the game and his coach have taught him. "Always keep playing."
Rawlings said the losses only brought them closer as they spent more time together off the court.
"We love each other," he said, smiling through tears. "I've learned so much — to look forward to whatever you have to do — even the hard work."