The packed Grosse Pointe South gym was abuzz Wednesday as defending Class A state champ Detroit Western battled with Public School League champ East English Village — and players from both teams were missing easy shots, clanking free throw attempts and committing silly turnovers.
And then there was Brailen Neely.
“I’m a veteran, I’ve been here for four years,” he said. “I knew what had to happen for us to win the game. Therefore, it was done.”
Yes, he knew what to do the previous night.
“The night before I knew it would come down to this situation, so I worked on a lot of free throws,” he said. “It came down to it and it worked.”
Neely converted nine of 11 free throws in overtime to carry Western to a wild, 77-76 victory over East English Village in a Class A district semifinal game.
“It was just going through my mind that if I hit these, we win,” he said. “Simple as that.”
Neely went to the free-throw line six times in the overtime, and there was no doubt who would have the ball in his hands when the game was being decided.
“He’s a four-year starter,” said Western coach Derrick McDowell. “Of course it’s got to be in his hands.”
With the score tied, Neely milked the clock in the final 50 seconds of regulation before he drove to the basket and passed to Josh Long, who missed an open lay-up.
Long helped make up for the miss by hitting the first shot in overtime.
“We always talk about if you’re going for the last shot and you’re a good player and the ball is in your hands, you not only have got to get your shot, you’ve got to get somebody else his shot,” said McDowell. “He got Long his shot, he just missed it.”
The lay-up appeared to be at a difficult angle for Long.
“All lay-ups for Long are tough,” McDowell said. “I mean, they are. He came back and made the one to start the overtime. He kept saying: ‘My bad, I got you, I got you.’ I told him we’re running out of ‘My bads.’ ”
No. 8 East English (17-5) had plenty of chances to win the game despite falling behind by 13 points, rallying thanks to the 25-point effort of Karmari Newman.
“The bad start hurt, but over the course of the year we didn’t break some bad habits that we had,” said East English coach Juan Rickman. “A lot of what we talked about was rebounding, securing the ball at times, especially when it’s that tight and not trying to go for a home-run pass. We got some stops and steals and we treated it like a hot potato.
“Those bad habits we had the whole year caught up with us today.”
This was a foul-plagued affair and turned into a matter of survival for both teams as the fouls piled up.
Western’s Armani Tinsley did what he does best — put the ball in the basket — and finished with 20 points.
“That’s all he can do, so he better do that because he can’t do anything else,” McDowell said.
Neely finished with 28 points, converting 17 of 21 free throws. He scored 16 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The ride isn’t over for the Cowboys, who failed to repeat at PSL champions this season.
“Actually it feels better to win this,” Neely said. “They can go home with the City. We’re still going for the state.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1