Melo Trimble offered some brotherly love to his O’Connell teammate. Knights Coach Joe Wootten told his senior forward to have fun. And naturally, the Panthers faithful screamed at the top of their lungs in a desperate attempt for distraction.
Etou stayed calm enough to sink the three game-winning free throws with 1.4 seconds left to lift O’Connell to a 58-56 double-overtime win at American University.
“I was nervous, but I believed in myself,” said Etou, who finished with 11 points. “I had missed free throws earlier, but I know I can make free throws so I just came back and tried to be myself and make them.”
Etou’s free throws capped a wild contest that featured 13 lead changes and saw Paul VI rally from a nine-point deficit in the final five minutes of regulation.
With the Panthers down 45-43, Marcus Derrickson (team-high 16 points) drew a blocking foul just before the buzzer. With the red light on the backboard shining back at him, the sophomore coolly sank both free throws to force overtime.
The Panthers proceeded to build a three-point lead before free throws by Trimble and Jamall Gregory in the final minute led to a second overtime. The teams traded baskets thereafter, with a poised Trimble hitting two floaters and Paul VI fierce rebounder Quadree Smith scoring a key putback.
“Coach was just telling me to take my time because we knew they would try to get me to rush and take me out of the game with their defense,” said Trimble, who had a game-high 21 points. “It’s always a tough game against PVI and this was no different. We just had to keep fighting.”
Two free throws by Etou, who had missed his three prior attempts, were followed by a Franklin Howard score that put Paul VI up 56-55 with 4.5 seconds left. After inbounding the ball 94 feet away, Etou grabbed a pass at midcourt, dribbled and rose from behind the three-point line, drawing a foul in the process to set up the decisive free throws.
St. John’s needed similar heroics Saturday, when a Darian Bryant buzzer-beater from halfcourt pushed the Cadets past DeMatha. And while no such drama occurred in Sunday’s semifinal against Bishop Ireton, the Cadets again rode clutch play by Bryant, who scored six of his 13 points down the stretch.
The Cardinals, fresh off an upset of top-ranked Gonzaga, jumped to a 16-10 lead behind the play of Daniel Noe (11 points). But Bryant and Tre Campbell reeled off the nine straight points in a critical second-quarter stretch. Bishop Ireton pulled back within two in the fourth period, but the Cadets clamped down defensively to hold the Cardinals without a point during a three-minute stretch. Meantime, Darian Anderson sank seven of his final eight free throws.
“Our defense was really big for us as well as our transition offense,” Bryant said. “I was still pretty excited from [Saturday] but we’ve got to keep pushing to reach our main goal, the championship.”