Great players have a gift for slowing down time. They operate on their own clock.
With his team trailing, 72-71 with 3.2 seconds left in overtime against Mission Oak High School, Damien sophomore sensation Jeremy Hemsley, who already had a game-leading 28 points, needed one more basket to give his team the victory in the first round of the CIF-State Boys Basketball Division III State Championship.
Damien had called timeout to set up the last shot. Everybody in the jam-packed Damien arena knew the ball was going to Hemsley.
“In the time out, I told the coach I wanted the shot,” Hemsley said. “If you think about it, 3.2 seconds is a lot of time to get your feet set and get the right shot.”
In three seconds, Hemsley dribbled three times from half-court to just outside the 3-point arc before elevating and launching his last shot. With time expired, the ball swished through the nets, giving Damien a maddening 74-72 win and launching the loudest postgame celebration in theh history of the Travers-Cronin gymnasium. (see video).
The win may have been improbably to everyone but Damien head coach Matt Dunn. “Three seconds, three dribbles. We practice it every day,” Dunn said.
The winning basket not only propels Damien forward to a Saturday second round date against West Hills Chaminade, but it also rescued the Spartans from what could have been a lot painful would-haves and could-haves, because no one on the bench or in the packed house ever thought the game would come down to a last-second heroic hoist of the basketball.
Indeed, Damien led by 14 points with under six minutes to play. They had played brilliantly for more than three quarters, showcasing their lockdown defense and clutch shooting from not only Hemsley but also Jared Dizon and Keith Cavanaguh, who each finished with 14 points. Isaiah McCullought and Ayo Adedeji also came up big.
But what looked like a coronation turned into a calamity for Damien midway through the fourth quarter. Behind their outstanding point guard Blake Shannon, Mission Oak reeled off 11 straight points to close the gap from 50-36 to 50-47. From that point on, it was Game-On, Dude!
Hemsley finally broke Mission Oak’s run with a 3-point play, expanding Damien’s lead to 53-47. It wasn’t anything the Damien faithful hadn’t seen before.
“My mindset in the fourth quarter is just to take over and be the best player that I can be, and do whatever I can to help my team win,” Hemsley said, describing his fourth-quarter M.O.
Mission Oak’s Matt Zorn drained a three-ball to pull his team within three, 53-50. Then Damien’s Cavanaugh stroked a three to put the Spartans up by six, 56-50, with 1:54 left. The margin looked safe.
After a Mission Oaks time-out, Zorn landed another trey to make the score, 56-53. Then Hemsley, with the benefit of a late whistle, sank two free throws to expand Damien’s lead to 58-53 with 1:25 remaining on the game clock. Mission Oak missed a point-blank lay-up and Hemsley converted another pair of free throws to bump Damien’s lead to 58-53.
Mission cut the margin to 60-55 with 23.3 seconds left, then got the ball back on a turnover when they trapped Hemsley on the baseline, where the officials ruled he had stepped out of bounds. Shannon quickly drained another 3-ball to leave his team trailing by just a bucket.
On the other end, Cavanaugh added a free throw to give Damien a 61-58 lead with 2.8 seconds left. Again the margin looked safe, but that was before Mission Oak inbounded the ball and Shannon launched a desperate shot from behind the midcourt line. Fortunately, the ball glanced off the front of the rim. Game over, right?
No. Mission Oak had called time out just before the shot attempt. Then Damien called time-out, then Mission Oak called another time-out.
Mission Oak again inbounded the ball to Shannon at midcourt, where he dribbled backwards in the direction of the Damien basket before he pivoted and launched a shot that banked off the backboard and fell through the net to force overtime.
The Damien crowd was stunned. Four additional minutes were put on the clock. Both teams missed their first shot attempts of the overtime period before Damien reasserted itself. Dizon hit a jumper with 2:40 left. In the next offensive set, Dizon sank two free throws after he was fouled attempting a breakaway layup. With the score, 65-61, it appeared Damien had once again restored order.
Mission Oak showed no quit, however. Austin Molezzo sank a three with 1:38 left to make it, 65-64. Adedeji responded right back with a three of his own to put Damien up 68-64.
With 34.8 seconds left, Blake drove hard to the basket to convert a lay-up plus one on the foul by Hemsley. Now Mission Oak trailed by just a point, 68-67.
In the next series, Mission Oak intentionally fouled Hemsley, who coolly sank both free throws to push Damien’s lead to 70 to 67. With precious seconds left, Mission Oak’s Will Shannon hit a three to tie the game, 70-70 with 9.8 seconds left.
Then inexplicably, Mission Oak’s Bobby Alvardo intentionally fouled Hemsley, who hadn’t missed a shot from the charity stripe all night. Although it seemed like a bonehead play at the time, Hemsley missed the second of his two free throws, his only miss from the line all night. Damien led 71-70.
On the ensuing play, frantically dribbling up the floor, Blake Shannon was fouled and calmly sank both free throws to give Mission Oak its first lead, 72-71, of the game since it led 15-13 in the first quarter. It didn’t seem possible but Mission Oak held the game in their hands with precious seconds left. Only a miracle would save the game for Damien now.
Damien inbounded, rushed the ball to midcourt and swiftly called time-out, with 3.2 seconds left. Dunn drew up a play for Hemsley, who was still thinking about that only free throw he had missed.
“I don’t think I could have handled that if we had lost the game because I had missed that last free throw,” Hemsley said after the game. “I was glad we came out with the win.”
With 31 points, including the clutch game winner, Hemsley had personally helped Damien avert one of the biggest collapses in its storied basketball history.
When Mission Oak caught fire and couldn’t miss, Damien still found a way to hold on and triumph. “It’s not like we played bad at the end of the quarter, they just played great,” Dunn said, complimenting his opponent.
“We all have a good will to win, and I think that’s why we won the game,” Hemsley added.
When asked whether he might have called a time-out to try to break Mission Oak’s 11-0 run in the fourth quarter, Dunn said he relied on his team’s experience and character.
“We’ve played in a lot of tough games where the other team made a run at us,” he noted. “I simply believed in our guys, and that’s how we’ve done it all year.
“And we have a great player who made one more great play.”
Time, even when you have precious little left, tells all.