Dorian Pickens had to be dying inside. He had to.
For the second straight year, Tempe Corona del Sol was celebrating a state championship in front of him. Some of Pickens’ Phoenix Pinnacle teammates were crying. Others sat on the bench, their head buried in their hands.
Pickens, however, was expressionless as he stood near the sideline. Finally, after Corona del Sol coach Sam Duane Jr. gently grabbed the back of Pickens’ head in the handshake line, pulled him close and whispered, “You’re a hell of a player,” did Pickens convey the slightest of emotions. He wiped his eyes with his jersey.
It’s hard to imagine another player who so deserved a championship to call his own. Or a player who was dealt such cruel twin blows of fate.
Corona del Sol’s 71-70 overtime victory in the Division I state title game at Jobing.com Arena ended Pickens’ spectacular high school career without a state title. Last year, Pinnacle led Corona del Sol by seven points with three minutes and three seconds remaining in the championship game and lost, 63-59. Saturday, the Pinnacle lead was six with just more than four minutes left, but the end result was the same:
Corona del Sol’s players racing on the court to celebrate; Pinnacle’s players silenced in disbelief.
“It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s a shame that one team had to lose this one,” Duane Jr. said. “I guess the basketball gods were looking out for us.”
If so, they certainly owe Pickens a favor or two. He was phenomenal, scoring 41 points on 16-of-29 shooting along with 10 rebounds and three assists. He and point guard Trey Ingram — Pinnacle’s Robin to Pickens’ Batman — combined for 60 of Pinnacle’s 70 points.
But the 6-foot-5 Pickens missed the final shot of the game — and his career — an off-balance 18-foot jumper after Pinnacle inbounded the ball with 1.1 seconds remaining in overtime.
No one expected Pickens to miss. He had that kind of game.
“You can’t be upset if the ball doesn’t go in,” said Pinnacle coach Charlie Wilde. “We played like champions. It just didn’t go in.”
In the aftermath, as Corona del Sol and its fans went wild, a short conversation along the Pinnacle sideline went unnoticed. Pickens walked up to Wilde and said, “I’m sorry.”
“The kid comes up and apologizes to me,” Wilde said, his voice cracking. “He’s such a good kid.”
Pickens has been a star since his freshman year, and it seemed inevitable that he would leave high school with at least one championship. But no one could envision a Corona del Sol team that’s become a dynasty and a player, in Casey Benson, that means as much to his team as Pickens does to Pinnacle.
The scale, however, is imbalanced. Benson leaves for Oregon with three titles. Pickens, who is heading to Stanford, only has two heartbreaking losses.
“I have so much respect for him just watching him play and having competed against him the last two years,” Duane Jr. said. “He doesn’t talk trash; he just does his business … That last shot I was saying, ‘Please just hit the rim.’ He’s a great player. We were lucky.”
Pickens’ character was revealed not only in his unnecessary apology to Wilde but the way he handled himself in post-game interviews. He should have been devastated —or at the very least angry. But he handled question after question with equanimity.
“It’s definitely a tough one to swallow but you can’t change the past,” he said, his voice calm and composed. “I think there will be a little hole (having not won a title), but I have no regrets. All season we worked extremely hard. Every day we pushed each other to be the best. This one hurts, but we’re going to get over it.”
Finally, Pickens headed to the Pinnacle locker room to join his teammates. Out of the corner of his eye Wilde watched him walk away. Last year, Wilde had been criticized for not getting the ball to Pickens enough in the closing minutes of the state championship game.
Saturday, he gave Pickens the ball again and again and again, and Pickens replied with a virtuoso performance that included a steal and old-fashioned three-point play to give Pinnacle a 70-69 lead late in overtime.
He just needed to make one more shot.
“I had a great look,” he said.
He deserved it. He had earned it.
But the party started without him.
Reach Bordow at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sBordow