As Jamaal King stepped to the free throw line with 14 seconds left and O’Connell clinging to a two-point lead in overtime of Thursday’s contest against No. 1 Paul VI, the Knights junior admittedly felt a heavy weight on his shoulders.
Typically, that pressure is reserved for standout senior Melo Trimble. But on a night when Paul VI shadowed the All-Met guard closely, the Knights were left to depend more on their role players. The altered approach, however, did nothing to tinker with King’s foul-shot routine.
“Take three dribbles, spin it like Kobe, take a deep breath and follow through,” King said while mimicking his routine. “I felt the pressure but the thought of missing those free throws never crossed my mind.”
Behind King’s two free throws and a couple late hustle plays from sophomore forward Lewis Djonkam, the No. 9 Knights accomplished what some deemed unthinkable, knocking off top-ranked juggernaut Paul VI in a thrilling, 63-58 overtime win in Arlington.
After building an early 10-point lead and holding Trimble to just five first-half points with Evan Taylor’s swarming defense, the Panthers (10-2, 5-1 WCAC) saw their advantage get whittled away as Ako Adams (10 points) and Randall Gaskins knocked down mid-range jumpers. Trimble (16 points) also began to heat up, draining consecutive three-pointers to help the Knights (8-5, 6-0) take a 45-42 lead after three quarters.
“As time went on and we started making more shots, we started believing more we could win this game,” said Gaskins, who finished with five points.
Paul VI did its best to stymie O’Connell’s faith. Taylor scored four of his 10 points to spark an 8-0 run that helped the Panthers briefly retake the lead midway through the fourth quarter. With the score tied at 54 in the waning seconds, Trimble slashed into the lane for a layup but the ball rimmed out, forcing overtime.
In the extra session, the Panthers, who missed all eight of their free throw attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime, struggled to find open looks near the basket. Still, after a 15-minute stoppage for a spectator experiencing a medical emergency, they found themselves with a chance to take the lead in the final minute.
But as they pulled down a defensive rebound, Djonkam knocked the ball away and recovered it for a putback, providing a cushion. Djonkam’s defensive rebound on the other end set up King’s free throws to seal the win and send O’Connell’s students onto the floor.
“Coach [Joe Wootten] always tells us in practice to be players,” said King, who had 16 points. “Even though we know we have Melo, and that’s great for us, we can step up and make plays along with him. . . . Playing our arch rival in Paul VI and it coming down to the last seconds, it doesn’t get any better than that.”