Every person in the gym was sure the game was going to overtime.
Heights, leading by three points, had done the unthinkable: It had fouled Jerrick Harding, the Southeast senior averaging 26.8 points and shooting 85 percent from the free-throw line, on a three-point shot as time expired.
Two dribbles, flick, swoosh. Another two dribbles, another flick, another swoosh.
Heights coach Joe Auer was frantically trying to calm down Aaron Williams, who committed the foul. He was trying to convince the Falcons, the No. 1-ranked team in Class 5A, they would withstand this and win the next four minutes.
Two more dribbles, one last flick, but the final swoosh never came.
The Heights team and cheerleaders stormed center court. Auer released a victory scream and an emphatic fist pump. Harding collapsed to the court in devastation.
This is the scene when the improbable happens, when the undisputed star of the City League misses a shot he’s made a thousand times in his home gym, when Heights survives for a 41-40 victory to win its first City League championship since 2012.
“We knew we were going to win, we just figured it was going to be in overtime,” Heights senior Marquis McCray said. “Our coach knew we were going to win and we knew we were going to win. We came here to win a City League championship and that’s exactly what we did.”
In a battle for league supremacy, the game took a bizarre turn in the second quarter when Southeast, the highest-scoring team in 6A at 71.7 points, attempted to draw Heights out of its zone by stalling, holding the ball at half-court. Instead, Auer was more than content to allow Southeast execute his game plan for him.
“We went in with the mindset of trying to limit their possessions,” Auer said. “So when they decided to take the air out of the ball, it really limited their possessions.”
The end result was Southeast holding the ball for nearly five minutes at the end of the second quarter and heading into halftime with a 17-11 lead, a move that coach Melvin Herring said afterward was “premature” and his team never recovered the usual swagger it plays with at home.
Harding and Israel Barnes, who were averaging more than 45 points, finished with a season-low 23 combined points.
“At the end of the day,” Herring said, “We just didn’t do what we usually do.”
Behind a flurry of three-pointers, Southeast nearly buried Heights in the third quarter when it took a 25-13 lead. But the major reason why the Falcons are 31-1 in their last 32 games is that they find ways to climb back into and win games.
“We’re used to winning games in the fourth quarter,” Auer said. “Our kids were right at home.”
Devin Davis and Tyrell Andrews combined for five three-pointers of their own, and then Davon Gill rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter and provided crucial play after crucial play on both ends for Heights.
“I had to step up,” said Gill, who finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. “Somebody had to do it.”
McCray scored on back-to-back possessions to give Heights a 39-35 lead with 1:10 left, its first lead since the first quarter. Heights failed to close out the game, however, missing the front-end of a bonus free throw trip to give Southeast a final chance.
Barnes fired a three in transition, then kept the ball alive on the rebound. The deflection fell to Harding, who immediately jumped behind the three-point line and let one fly. His rushed shot fell wide, but the foul was called with no time left on the clock.
“It was just luck, that’s all it was,” Auer said of the miss. “We just got lucky.”
There was no consoling Harding after the game, but Herring hopes this moment sticks with him in the future.
“It’s tough on him right now, but God’s got a purpose,” Herring said. “God’s got a plan for everything and there is a reason why it worked out that way. There’s always something bigger on the other side, so I’m excited to see how he’ll bounce back.”
Heights – Gill 10, Andrews 9, McCray 9, Davis 6, Williams 3, Bahner 2, Williams 2.
Southeast – Harding 16, Brown 10, Barnes 8, Manns 6.