Gonzaga junior forward Terrance Williams collected his thoughts as he stood at the free throw line, taking a long pause as he eyed the basket in front of him.
The Eagles’ chance to secure their third Washington Catholic Athletic Conference boys’ basketball title over the past five seasons rested on his shoulders, and the St. John’s student section roared behind him, daring him to miss.
When the ball found the bottom of the net, pushing Gonzaga’s lead to four points with 2.1 seconds left, Williams, the Eagles’ leader, knew he had sealed the victory, propelling Gonzaga to a 60-56 win Monday night at American University’s Bender Arena.
“It’s been a rocky road,” Gonzaga Coach Steve Turner said. “Started off with a lot of injuries, tough losses, tough with guys out, and then down the stretch here we found our mojo when it mattered the most.”
It was an opportunity for redemption for the No. 4 Eagles, who lost in last year’s championship game against DeMatha by one point.
On Monday, it was their night to shine.
Williams led the way with 20 points, scoring 11 in the first half to help Gonzaga build a 31-22 lead. Senior Anwar Gill added 19 points.
“I told those guys in the locker room that, even though we lost last year, I wasn’t going to let that happen again this year as [their] leader,” Williams said after the game, sweat still dripping down his forehead. “We all came out here and played strong and played together.”
Gonzaga (27-6) held the advantage from the beginning, jumping to a 18-9 lead. The Eagles maintained that nine-point lead at halftime, but then the No. 8 Cadets (23-10) started to claw their way back. Virginia signee Casey Morsell led the charge, scoring a team-high 19 points.
Morsell cut what had been a 14-point Gonzaga lead to two on his three-pointer with 8.1 seconds left to make it 57-55, but Williams sealed the outcome by making three of his last four free throw attempts in the final seconds.
Gonzaga’s run to the WCAC title felt improbable after its rough start to the season. The Eagles seemed to hit a wall with a 69-44 loss to co-WCAC regular season champion Paul VI in early January, but instead, that’s when Gonzaga started to get its energy back.
“I told my guys that we weren’t even supposed to be here,” Williams said, “and I love you guys for everything.”
The Eagles rattled off 16 wins in 17 games to reach the championship game Monday night. The victory was their third this season against their rivals from St. John’s, following a 56-53 victory in December and a 68-63 win earlier this month.
“We knew we had to come out here and give it everything we had, and that’s exactly what we did,” Gonzaga junior forward Myles Stute said. “Everyone feels like we are the underdogs. We always feel like we can square off with anyone in this country — and especially anyone in this league.”