* La Plata 53, Northern 51
Like most basketball players, La Plata's Mike Wilson has spent countless hours of practice heaving desperation three-pointers at the basket and dreaming of glory.
Still, when his team trailed Northern by one point with 3.8 seconds remaining in the game Friday night, the junior point guard was perfectly content to be the quarterback in La Plata's "home run" play, in charge of delivering the ball to a shooter up the court.
But with the passing lanes filled, Wilson hesitated for a split second and put his practice to good use, charging up the court and banking in a three-pointer at the buzzer from just inside half court and giving La Plata a 53-51 home victory.
Despite earning a huge roar from the crowd and several group tackles from his teammates, Wilson insisted he hadn't set out to be the hero.
"I was actually looking to run the play, really," said Wilson, a transfer from Florida in his first year at La Plata. "But the pass wasn't there, so I just turned and shot the ball. . . . Everyone dreams about hitting a shot like that."
Wilson's winning basket capped a strange fourth quarter, which began with Northern (4-3) holding a 40-32 lead. La Plata (3-6) narrowed that gap with a full-court man-to-man press, eventually going ahead on a breakaway dunk by Andrew Lee (team-high 13 points).
"That was it right there; that's when everyone got hyped up," Wilson said.
The teams traded the lead on three consecutive possessions, but then the offensive run disappeared as quickly as it had started; neither team scored in the 2 minutes 30 seconds before Wilson's heroics.
La Plata had a chance to go ahead with 34 seconds left but couldn't get off a shot, and three fouls finally put Northern in the bonus. But the Patriots missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Wilson his last chance.
His practice for that moment hadn't merely been on the playground. La Plata Coach Mike Meiser regularly has his players take half-court shots as part of a drill called "competition shooting," and on Thursday the team rehearsed several game-ending scenarios, including two in which the Warriors trailed by one possession with three seconds remaining.
"One of the kids said, 'Coach, you must be a cosmic wizard,' " Meiser said. "I said, 'It might as well happen to us; it's happened to other teams.' "
The first half, a sluggish affair that ended in a 21-21 tie, was defined more by who was on the bench than who was in the game. Lee sat for the final five minutes of the half after picking up his second foul, and La Plata guard Leonard Bannister missed the entire half after an unspecified violation of team rules, leaving the Warriors without two of their major weapons.
But Northern was also hampered, with leading scorer and rebounder Phil Howell missing the first quarter after being late for the team bus. Danny Sydnor picked up the slack, scoring eight of his game-high 14 points in the quarter, and Howell came in to score seven points and grab several key rebounds.
Despite the odd ending, Northern Coach Rick Weber said his team had itself to blame for the loss. "We had many opportunities to put the game away, and we didn't," he said.
And the Warriors were happy to take advantage, giving them a memorable beginning to the new year.
"We decided to start the whole season over in 2003," said Wilson, who finished with eight points.