Bronny James cut across the open floor, everyone in the gym aware of what was to come, the Sierra Canyon senior gliding to his spot as the clock ticked with urgency.
Nine seconds. Eight seconds.
Corona Centennial and Sierra Canyon were going blow-for-blow as the air was vacuumed out and sucked back into the Huskies’ gym. The kettle on the stove of a game with simmering intensity finally boiled over. One fourth-quarter jump ball turned into a scrum, Centennial’s Jared McCain and Sierra Canyon’s Jimmy Oladokun walking away barking at each other as the score hung, precarious.
Seven seconds. Six seconds.
And after burying a corner three-pointer to cut a Centennial four-point lead to a single-possession game, James raced up court after free throws. Down three. Seeming inevitable. Back and forth between his legs, lightning-quick, pulling up from deep in a buzzing gym.
Clank. Off rim. Inches long. And all James could do was walk away, grinning in agony as Centennial snared the rebound, his massive three-pointer seconds earlier and valiant Trailblazers effort against the top-seeded team in the Open Division all for naught in a 68-63 loss.
“Definitely disappointing,” Sierra Canyon’s Ashton Hardaway said. “I feel like if we would’ve won that game, the next two games [in pool play] wouldn’t be a question. It would’ve given us a lot of momentum.”
It was senior heartbeat Jared McCain who galvanized the Huskies to the win, attacking and nailing big second-half free throws when Centennial’s jumpers fell short. He went toe to toe with James as the two top recruits guarded each other frequently, and finished with 22 points, bruised and battered after a night of full-body collisions.
“To pull it out against him and Sierra Canyon, who’s been on top for so long — but being able to beat them three years in a row,” McCain said, referring to Centennial’s streak of playoff wins over the Trailblazers, “has been a blessing for me and it’s just a tribute to (Coach Josh) Giles and this team.”
Three months before the Friday night madness, before the roller coaster this Sierra Canyon season has brought, Trailblazers head coach Andre Chevalier stood with hands encased in his hoodie on a cold November night. Musing his program’s position in relation to the best of the best. The strange notion that nationally renowned Sierra Canyon could actually be underdogs to Centennial, who’d won back-to-back Open crowns.
“Corona and us don’t really have a rivalry, because we’re not in a league together,” Chevalier said then. “But as far as the Open Division is concerned, I think every great dynasty had a nemesis or an antagonist.”
Friday night was Huskies red against Trailblazers blue again, Sierra Canyon in hostile territory, limping into the first pool-play matchup of this year’s Open Division playoffs against their described antagonist. No Isaiah Elohim, still nursing a sprained ankle. No Justin Pippen.
In the second quarter, a swarm of Centennial white jerseys looked like cyborgs whose only programming was defensive slides and active hands. The Huskies forced turnovers and got easy buckets in running out to a 36-24 halftime lead, and the Trailblazers’ chances looked cooked.
Then James took a third-quarter charge from McCain, smacking the floor in emphasis. This was a dogfight, where momentum swung on sheer toughness inside a cramped and deafening Huskies gym, and the Trailblazers’ offense flicked on. Hardaway buried a corner three, then another over Centennial’s Eric Freeny, and a flurry of buckets cut Centennial’s lead to one.
In the fourth quarter, though, experience wins. And this Centennial team, as McCain pointed out, has been through the wringer.
Hardaway hit a massive three to put Sierra Canyon up one with just a few minutes left — and BJ Taylor came right back with a corner three. An Oladokun dunk sent the Trailblazers crowd ablaze and cut the lead to two with a minute left — and Freeny ducked in for a layup to extend the lead right back to four. It was poise, composure, and once James’ three ticked off the rim, the Huskies had outlasted again.
The Huskies start pool play 1-0, and will take on Notre Dame Sherman Oaks on Tuesday. The Trailblazers drop to 0-1, in a tough spot with Elohim probably out for the rest of pool play, and will travel to Bishop Montgomery on Tuesday.