Jefferson simply wasn't going to be beat Saturday night.
The top-ranked Democrats played a nearly flawless first half on their way to a 69-64 victory over No. 2 Churchill in the Class 5A boys basketball state championship game at Matthew Knight Arena.
Jefferson (26-1) never trailed en route to its second straight state title and sixth since 2000, doing so after coach Pat Strickland informed his team that six of Jefferson's players would be suspended for the game, which he said was "an administrative decision."
The Democrats took the floor with linked arms and played one of their best games of the season, beating the Lancers (25-3) in the state final for the second year in a row.
Churchill did its part to make the game interesting after halftime, but its furious comeback fell short and the Lancers' 21-game winning streak came to an end in bitter fashion.
"It definitely united them to come together and focus and hit some tough shots," Churchill coach Kelly Bokn said of the suspensions. "You've got to tip your hat off to them. Those aren't easy shots for a high school kid to hit."
Things couldn't have started any better for the depleted Democrats.
Junior point guard Kadeem Strickland was red-hot early, making three straight three-pointers and scoring 13 consecutive points to give Jefferson all the confidence it needed.
Gonzaga-bound senior Silas Melson, the seasonlong favorite for Class 5A player of the year, was every bit the challenge Churchill expected him to be.
Melson drilled two first-quarter three-pointers of his own and Jefferson held a comfortable 24-12 lead by the end of the period.
Jefferson shots continued to fall from all over the court in the second quarter, with Melson knocking down a pull-up three-pointer on the first possession to keep Jefferson's momentum rolling. With Strickland and Melson leading the attack, Jefferson opened the game 9-for-11 from behind the three-point line and took a 38-21 lead midway through the second quarter.
"I felt like I had to play with more energy and more composure," said Strickland, who scored 16 of his 18 points in the first half. "When I knocked down that first one, that gave me the confidence to keep shooting."
With the Lancers trailing 47-25 to start the third quarter, the comeback was on.
Senior Malik Morgan led a 13-4 Churchill run to start the second half with Andrew Smith scoring nine of his 13 points during that pivotal stretch. Kendrick Abraham's three-pointer cut the lead to nine (52-43) and Morgan continued to push the pace.
"We were trying to cut it to 10 going into the fourth quarter," Bokn said.
The Lancers made it a four-point game after outscoring Jefferson 25-7 during the third quarter. Strickland had a bad miss on a three-pointer at the buzzer, and all the momentum seemed to be leaning in Churchill's favor.
"(We) were gassed," Pat Strickland said. "The starters played a lot of minutes the whole year."
After a back-and-forth fourth quarter, the Lancers had one final opportunity to send the game into overtime.
With the Lancers trailing 67-64 with 11 seconds left, Morgan attempted an off-balance three-pointer from the right wing that hit the front of the rim and bounced out.
Strickland made two free throws -- his only points of the second half -- and Jefferson celebrated, again.
Melson led all scorers with 24 points on 9-for-15 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds. Devaunte Paschal added seven points and seven rebounds and Geno West finished with eight points.
Pat Strickland told the team about the suspensions during their pregame meal at Olive Garden, delivering a pointed message to his star player.
"This is why you're the best player in the state," he told Melson. "For these types of moments right here.'"
Morgan led Churchill with 21 points on 8-for-15 shooting to go along with 11 assists and three rebounds. Senior David Shedrick had 11 points and 11 rebounds, and Brendan Nesbit made all four of his shots to finish with nine points.
The loss brought a disappointing end to what's been an impressive three-year run for Churchill's nine-member senior class.
"Life is full of hurdles," Bokn said. "It's part of the things you get to learn as a part of athletics. You've got to respond to adversity and persevere."
Follow Lucas on Twitter @LucasClark_RG.