MELISSA — This game, maybe one of the best you’ll see in a high school gym, had it all: a second-half rally from 13 points down; a player suddenly shooting lights-out, taking over the game; the winning team hitting 40-percent of 27 free throws; two overtime periods with playoff spots at stake; an inadvertent whistle as a player is about to score; a small red ball bouncing onto the court, stopping play in the first OT.
What do you say after a game like that? If you’re Melissa head coach Eric Benton, the answer — after winning — was, “Thank goodness.’’
He added, “As long as they were going to keep putting time on the clock, we were happy to keep playing.”
Indeed, they kept playing at Melissa High’s Bird Cage on Tuesday, Feb. 14, and in the end the Cardinals prevailed over Aubrey, 65-62, after looking quite cooked midway through the third quarter. But with Melissa down, 39-26, a player who’d struggled with his shots of late, sophomore Matt Holloway, absolutely went off, scoring nine straight points to ignite a furious Cards rally.
“Ultimately, that has to be the thing we’re most proud of: When things weren’t going well, when a couple of calls didn’t go our way, the ball didn’t bounce our way a couple of times, we continued to stay the course and grind and grind and grind, and believe and believe and believe,” Benton said. “… I could not be prouder of our kids and our coaches, just staying the course.”
The win guaranteed Melissa (6-4) at least a tie for second place in District 11-4A, but with Celina’s coinciding loss to district-champ Anna (9-1), the Cards clinched the second playoff seed outright. A Melissa loss could’ve introduced the possibility of “play-in” game at Celina — just to make the post-season.
Holloway finished with a game-high 28 points — including five 3s — and 25 of those came in the second half.
“Matt hasn’t made ton of shots the last few games, but he’s been finding other ways to help us find ways to be successful,” Benton said. “Tonight, he ends up with 28 — and that’s a kid that I’m going to tell you has just stayed the course the last couple of weeks.”
Equally sharp from long range this night was sophomore Junior Castleberry, who added 15 points, with three of his four treys coming in the first half when the Cards were fighting just to stay close.
Four Chaps scored in double figures, with Gatlin Grisso knocking home a team-high 17 points. With the loss, Aubrey finishes the district race at 5-5, tied with Celina and Princeton for third place. One of those three teams will miss the playoffs based on play-in games and/or tie-breakers.
After Holloway’s initial outburst, the Chaps still led, 43-35, to open the fourth quarter. But the Cards kept chipping away. After another 3 from Holloway, two critical back-to-back 3-point plays drew Melissa to within two, at 45-43: junior Cole McCraw’s layup — with a freshman Kaedric Cobbs assist — and his subsequent free throw; and another Holloway trey. Grisso answered those with a layup, but Holloway came back with one of his own to stay two back.
Finally, with 2:30 left in regulation, freshman Brendon Lewis’ layup off a steal tied the game for Melissa at 47-all. The game was knotted again, at 49, before McCraw’s big put-back layup with 1:35 left gave the Cards their first lead since early on, 51-50. Melissa went up, 53-50, after a Holloway layup off McCraw’s assist, but it didn’t last. Aubrey rallied to tie at 55-55 before a tough shot off a long pass wouldn’t fall for McCraw at the buzzer.
In the first overtime, the Chaps crept to a 59-56 lead before Castleberry jammed home a 3 to tie with a minute left. And there it remained, requiring more OT. With one minute left in the next period, a Cobbs layup gave the Cards the lead for good, at 63-62. Aubrey’s next shot was rejected by Castleberry, who wound up on the line with 14 seconds left. He sank one shot for a 64-62 edge then Brendon Lewis closed it out with another free throw with one second on the clock.
A finer win for Melissa would be difficult to describe.
“I didn’t want to lose,” Holloway said. “So I took it upon myself, just decided we were not going to lose. And it started to go in.”
It was clear his teammates noticed what was happening.
“We can kind of tell who the hot guy is,” Holloway said, “and I think we respect that. We know when someone’s hot to get them the ball, and it just happened to be me. Junior was hot too tonight. So they were giving us the ball and we were making plays like they expected us to do.”
“I was just thinking, ‘Win,’” Castleberry added. “There was a lot of emotion with all the calls and stuff, but I was just thinking, ‘Win the game.’ … Knowing we can come back and win, I think it gives us a lot of confidence.”