WARREN - The game was in the hands of Howland's Brendan Cope with 11 seconds left and the Tigers trailing their archrival, John F. Kennedy, by two.
The senior was having one of the best games of his career, and it seemed almost certain he would be the player shooting the final shot.
Luckily for Howland, not everyone thought that way.
With the Eagles' defense caving in on him as the clock ticked away, Cope noticed sharp-shooter Evan Steele standing alone in the far corner of Gillen Gymnasium.
"I thought he was going to shoot it, too," Steele said. "I saw him look at me, and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed no one was around me. He passed it to me, and I was like, 'It's time to shoot it.' As soon as I got it, I knew I had to shoot. We were running out of time, and we needed that shot."
Cope's cross-court pass was right on target, and Steele raised up and nailed a game-winning 3 with 2.9 seconds remaining. A heave by Kennedy was off the mark as time expired, and Howland came away with a 52-51 victory in a classic battle between two bitter rivals.
The pass caught almost everyone by surprise because it seemed like Cope couldn't miss at times. He banked in a 3, had a tip bounce off his fingertips and into the net and made numerous shots with multiple defenders in his face. He finished with 24 points (11 of 19 from the floor), eight rebounds, four steals and two assists, but he said the game-deciding pass wasn't a tough decision.
"When there's three guys on me, it's easy to kick it out," he said with a laugh. "We weren't trusting each other throughout the game, and we really needed to get that trust back. Late in the fourth quarter we started kicking it out a little bit more, and two guys collapsed on me, so I just had faith in Evan, and he hit a big shot."
Kennedy (3-7) made plenty of key baskets as well. Dominic Naples made a great pass to Robert Seger just moments before Steele hit his shot for Howland (3-7). Seger hit a lay up and was fouled. He missed the free throw, which was a reoccurring problem for the Eagles (they were 11 of 22). The struggles at the line infuriated Kennedy coach Shawn Pompelia.
"You can't shoot 11 of 22 free throws and expect to win a game - you can't," he said. "And that's where we lost the game tonight. It's just disheartening because of the lack of attention to detail at the end of the game. We know that a 3 is going to beat us. That's inexcusable, especially for the kids we had on that floor. And again, shooting 11 of 22 is inexcusable. We're a high school team. There's eighth-grade teams that have better foul shooting than we do. And it's not like we haven't worked on it. It just drives me nuts right now."
A loss would have been tough to endure for either team in a game where the competition was so intense even the cheerleaders were trying out-do each other during timeouts.
The contention on the court was pretty good, too.
The lead changed multiple times during the first half before Cope started to find his groove midway through the second quarter. He reeled off nine points and led the Tigers on a 13-3 run, giving them a 35-26 halftime lead. Cope stayed hot in the third, and Howland started to pull away with a 43-32 lead, but Naples, who tied Seger with a team-high 16 points, answered every time the Tigers went on a run. He was the catalyst of a 7-0 run to trim Howland's lead to 45-41 entering the fourth.
The Eagles kept the momentum in the fourth and took their first lead of the second half, 48-47, on a putback by Seger. Howland chose to intentionally foul John Hilty with 57 seconds left after an offensive foul was called on Cope. Hilty made 1 of 2, but Cope scored to tie it 49. That set up Naples' bounce-pass inside to Seger, who layed it in for a two-point lead with 11.9 seconds remaining. Cope and Steele then put the finishing touches on a game that seemed to have slipped away from the Tigers.
"I thought Brendan showed tremendous leadership and confidence in a teammate by drawing the defense and kicking it out to a wide-open shooter," Howland coach Bill Bogan said. "That's when we're good, when we're trusting our teammates. It's like night and day."