MANSFIELD – Nobody on the Prestonwood Christian Academy boys basketball team wanted the final two points in Saturday’s TAPPS 5A State Championship Game more than sophomore D.J. McGee.
Mere seconds after nearly wresting away control of the game to John Paul II, McGee got his chance at redemption with 8.2 seconds to play. The heroics that followed proved the difference in a 46-45 Prestonwood victory that marked the team’s third consecutive state title and fourth in the past five years.
“I just really wanted to win,” McGee said. “I felt like my team needed me and I had to go do what I could do.”
McGee’s sense of urgency heightened plenty after the Cardinals snagged their first lead of the second half at 45-44 with 25 seconds to play on an elbow jumper by junior Brendan Baker. McGee tried to respond immediately, but instead picked up on offensive foul on a charge taken by senior Jackson Forbes.
The second-year point guard got one last chance to make amends moments after senior Bola Alade (14 points) missed the front end of a one-and-one by barreling into the paint and drawing a foul with 8.2 to play. The two free throws that followed put an emphatic cap on McGee’s team-leading 14 points and gave the Lions a 46-45 lead.
“D.J. McGee is a sophomore who’s going to be a Division I point guard in two years,” said Chris Lovell, Prestonwood head coach. “He’s big, strong and has a size 14 shoe, which we hope he grows into. He’s got great confidence and to be a point guard at any level, you have to have that.”
The Cardinals raced back up the floor, with Alade getting into the lane for a layup contested by Prestonwood sophomore Schnider Herard. Although Alade avoided the 6-foot-10 post’s wingspan, the layup slithered over and off the rim as time expired.
“We got a great look at the end,” said Jacob Anderson, John Paul head coach. “A layup to win the state championship was just an inch to the right and didn’t go.”
For the Cardinals, it was an unceremonious cap to a fourth quarter that saw them claw back after Prestonwood took its foot off the gas and attempted to bleed clock with roughly 6:30 remaining and a 41-34 lead.
And although it resulted in three turnovers and permitted the Cardinals to close the game on an 11-5 run, the Lions ultimately weathered the storm.
“We’ve played in a lot of close games this season,” Lovell said. “I think those games prepared us a lot for situations like this. I’m really proud of the guys for keeping their composure.”
That mental fortitude was tested plenty, both late and early in the game when Herard, the State Tournament MVP, picked up two fouls in the first quarter.
“I’m always trying hard to get offensive rebounds for my team,” Herard said. “It was tough picking up those early fouls, but coach sat me down, told me to take a deep breath and it was going to be OK.”
With the anchor of their interior defense sidelined, the Lions had no recourse for keeping John Paul off the glass early on. The Cardinals out-rebounded Prestonwood, 25-12, in the first half and Forbes’ (10 points, 13 rebounds) hands might as well have been magnets with the volume of rebounds he grabbed. It was turning those chances into points that proved problematic for the Cardinals.
“There were opportunities throughout the game,” Anderson said. “In the first half, we missed about 10 chippies and once we finally got a lead, we just let [Prestonwood] linger and hang around.”
Able to extend its lead to 20-14 following an and-one by junior Ryan Smith, John Paul watched its momentum dissipate upon Herard (nine points, six rebounds) re-entering the game with 5:05 to go in the first half.
The Lions responded by closing out the frame on an 11-2 run for a 25-22 advantage at halftime.
John Paul wouldn’t regain the lead until Baker’s jumper with 25 seconds to play. And although there were chances to close the door on one last Prestonwood rally, it wasn’t to be for the Cardinals, who watched their postseason go up in smoke for the fourth consecutive year at the hands of their city rivals.
“It’s tough for everyone,” Anderson said. “… To come up an inch short, I feel for those kids. It’s probably something they’ll never forget.”
The same could be said for Prestonwood, except in an entirely light.
“It’s big. It feels like I’m dreaming right now,” McGee said.
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