The scoreboard read 0.9 seconds in yellow lights. Below the time display, in red lights, the scoreboard read 50 for the home team and 49 for the guest.
With its postseason hanging in the balance, the Santa Clarita Christian School boys basketball team had 0.9 seconds and one more opportunity to escape with a win against Highland on Saturday in the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 3AA playoffs.
With his eyes locked down the court, senior guard Leroy Thompson received the ball from the referee underneath the Cardinals’ basket. He pump faked once, then cocked his right arm back and sailed a baseball pass over a leaping Highland defender past midcourt.
Thompson was aiming for junior Caden Starr, who received the pass about 40 feet away from the basket with his back turned. Starr did a 180-spin and launched a high-arcing shot that went right through the bottom of the net as the buzzer sounded, giving the Cardinals a 52-50 win.
“We hadn’t gone over any sort of play like that in practice, to be down with 0.9 on the clock at the other end of the court. So when I got the ball I had a gut feeling to throw it to Caden,” Thompson said. “When the ref handed me the ball I saw Caden front and center raising his hand in the air around half court and I knew I had to get it to him.
“In practice and games Caden will always throw up crazy shots and floaters, so I felt confident throwing him the ball.”
Moments before, SCCS had a 49-47 advantage with 13.7 seconds on the clock, but Highland’s Julian Williams got the ball down the court quickly and drained a 3-pointer with less than a second left.
Just two days earlier, Williams hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Highland a win over San Gabriel Academy in the quarterfinals.
SCCS wasn’t about to let that happen two games in a row.
“After Highland made that 3 to go up by one we were all shocked and just got together in the huddle to collect ourselves and refocus,” Thompson said. “All I remember was that all the guys kept encouraging each other, still believing we would somehow come out with the win.”
SCCS held the lead for most of the contest, carrying a 30-25 advantage into halftime.
At one point in the third quarter, the Cardinals had a 13-point lead, but the Bulldogs fought back to close the deficit to three points before the start of the final quarter.
“After we got a lead, we made some key mistakes defensively to give them momentum and get back in the game,” Thompson said. “Even though it got close, the whole game we kept encouraging each other and stayed focused to the game plan and our ultimate goal.”
The Bulldogs grabbed a 45-44 lead midway through the fourth quarter, but two free throws from senior Kevin Stone put the Cardinals back ahead.
Williams scored to regain the lead for Highland, 47-46, but Starr hit a free throw and Stone scored to put the Cardinals on top 49-47. Then came the back-to-back unlikely 3-pointers, first from Williams, then the game-winner from Starr.
“Our team and coaches have worked so hard to get to this point and we are just so thankful that God blessed us in this way to honor Him at the highest level,” Thompson said.
Stone led the team in scoring with 14 points and Starr added 10 points. Thompson and junior Kaleb Lowery had nine points apiece and sophomore Josh O’Garro logged six points. Senior Justin Collins rounded out the scoring with four.
SCCS will play Rolling Hills Preparatory in the CIF-Southern Section Division 3AA finals on Saturday, Feb. 23 at Godinez High School in Santa Ana. Tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m.
Both teams played at the 2018 Classic at Damien in the Gold Division, but didn’t cross paths because SCCS won its first-round game and Rolling Hills lost its first-round game.
“This week will be important for us as a group to prep for Saturday. We have to make sure we focus during film and have the game plan down,” Thompson said. “We want to put ourselves in the best position possible to complete the goal we set before the season even began.”