Saturday night’s pair of superb, Invitational Division semifinal finishes at the MaxPreps Holiday Classic may have set new tournament standards for excitement, tension and pure guts.
Back-to-back upsets sent waves of hoop enthusiasm through the standing-room only Rancho Mirage main gym, and set up a championship final for Monday night that may prove historic.
In the latter of the two semifinal contests, Jackson High of Mill Creek, Wash., an unknown to many in attendance, upset Long Beach Poly High with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in overtime from senior forward Brian Zehr.
The Timberwolves aim to become the first-ever team from outside of California to win top tourney honors.
Trailing by as many as 11 points in the third quarter, Jackson scratched back to take an eventual 46-44 lead with just over two minutes remaining in the game before Poly was able to send the game to an extra frame for the second time in as many nights. Late Friday night, Poly defeated the tournament’s top-seed Wenonah in a double-overtime thriller.
Down 52-50 with 19 seconds remaining in OT, Jackson regained the ball on a five-second call at midcourt. But after turning the ball over themselves, the Timberwolves were forced to foul Poly’s leading scorer on the night, Ke’jhan Feagin, who missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw with 10 seconds remaining.
Finding himself with the ball at the left side of the arc, Zehr’s triple sent the gym into a frenzy and surged Jackson to the title game with a 53-52 win.
“That was not real. I’ve never done something like that before. It was crazy,” Zehr said. “But I’ve been practicing my whole life for that situation. I decided to shoot it, and it went in and thank God for that.”
Of Jackson’s MaxPreps title shot, Zehr added: “We’re just a bunch of guys that nobody thinks are any good. We take a lot of pride in playing really tough and playing really good defense and just giving it our all on the floor. We’re making sure people know who we are — not just a bunch of bums from Mill Creek.”
The first semifinal game Saturday evening offered no less drama as upstart Capital Christian (Sacramento) beat defending champion Westchester 47-43, complements of a Herculean performance from senior guard Uchenna Iroegbu.
Down 43-42 with 22 seconds remaining, Iroegbu converted five clutch free throws down the stretch to author the final outcome. All told, Iroegbu scored 29 points on the night, including a perfect 15-for-15 mark from the charity stripe.
“We practice those free throws a lot. So, I’m used to it,” Iroegbu said. “As a kid that’s all you think about, that ‘Big shot’ you want to rise up and hit. That’s something I always like to do, and I was able to do it for my team tonight.”
Of Capital Christian’s chances to take the championship, Iroegbu said: “I always believed in us. People might doubt us because we’re a small school from northern California, but I guess right now we’re proving all that we can do.”
Tournament action for the 119 participating schools takes a break Sunday before resuming for the final day Monday.
Jackson High and Capital Christian will meet at 8:40 p.m. Monday at the Rancho Mirage High School main gym in the title game.