THIS OPENER looked more like a closer.
Aside from a decent crowd and high intensity, there was a roar-back by the team that wound up winning and a clutch performance by its star that even guys in the NBA would have been proud to call their own.
As the final buzzer sounded, someone should have cut down the net and draped it around Denzel Yard's neck. Maybe handed him a plaque, too.
As it was, a Franklin Learning Center loyalist stormed around the court yelling, "Maalik who?! Denzel's the best player in the city!"
The reference was to Roman Catholic guard Maalik Wayns, who has signed with Villanova. Yard, a 6-foot, 170-pound senior, is bound for Siena and he, too, has inked his scholarship papers.
There's one school of thought that claims early signees sometimes lose their hunger and go through their senior seasons in something close to a fog. Another: It's impossible for any guy to play his best ball right out of the gate. And we'll add to that: Especially in a gym where the visitor almost never wins.
FLC 69, Simon Gratz 65. That was the final yesterday in a classic of a Public B opener that was also the winner's first game of any kind this season.
All Yard did was pour in 37 points, grab a team-high nine rebounds and total three apiece of assists and steals.
Yard, a lefty, ch-chinged his way to 19 - yes, 19 - of those points in the fourth quarter, which began with the Bobcats in a 43-36 hole.
Yard acknowledged being a streaky shooter, then added with a laugh, "But when I'm on, there's gonna be trouble."
With a capital T.
In a span of just over 1 minute, Yard sandwiched two three-pointers around a regular field goal and then passed to fellow guard Jamil Drake for another three trey, making it 47-47 with 5:18 remaining.
Soon, Yard was draining another threeball, making it 52-49. At 2:57, after going 5-for-5 from the floor in the quarter, Yard finally misfired on a slightly forced jumper. No need to worry. Basir Fulmore grabbed the rebound and turned a follow into a three-point play.
When that happens, you know it's your day.
"That play gave me a push," Yard said. "It was like, 'Things are going our way.' I'm so proud of my teammates. At the point when we needed a second wind, they all had it. Every team gets a late push. Just depends on when it comes and what you do with it.
"Being a team leader is fun. But it also comes with a lot of responsibility. When you're doing it the right way, plus getting results like this, there's no better feeling."
Overall, Yard shot 11-for-22 from the floor (5-for-10 on treys) and 10-for-14 at the line. Gratz gave him too much room early in the fourth quarter, out of a match-up zone, then failed to remotely harness him when he began his assorted knife-throughs.
"Usually, the best part of my game is driving," he said. "But I had room for the threes and was hitting them, so . . . I knew I had to do something. I didn't know it was going to go like that. To have it go this way, in this kind of atmosphere. Amazing."
Drake, a senior, was Yard's top playmate. He was the only other Bobcat to score more than five points (14), plus he contributed six rebounds, three assists and four steals.
Yard's best friend is West Catholic quarterback Curtis Drake, who's bound for Penn State. You see what's coming, right?
"Jamil is Curt's cousin," Yard said. "We're tight, too."
Yard and coach Will Wright confirmed that Drake had been prevented from playing before this season by academic shortcomings.
"Jamil promised me he'd get himself together," said Yard, who lives on Rittenhouse Street, in East Germantown, not far from Chew and Chelten. "He went to summer school. Did credit recovery. He's almost a starter now. Today he got starter's minutes. We've got great chemistry."
Also on the floor for the fantastic stretch run were Fulmore, Turhan Griffin and Jerrod Johnson.
"That was the combination that clicked," Wright said. "When that happens, you don't mess with it. Just leave 'em out there."
Yard said his early commitment both relieved and created stress.
"It's nice to know you're set," he said. "But now, you constantly have to prove you're worthy of being a D-I guy."
After Fulmore missed a one-and-one at 0:21, Gratz had a chance to at least force overtime. But Tyree Smith (10 of his 17 in the fourth quarter) missed a right-baseline jumper and an intentional foul was called after a Bulldog grabbed Yard, the rebounder, with two hands. He nailed both shots at 0:06.
Next, the Bobcats were exploding in glee and Wright was responding like any coach would after Game No. 1. With caution.
"Now, every team is going to be hunting us," he said, laughing.
Yeah, but how about Yard's performance?
"He played the perfect game," Wright said. "Great on his own. And made the other guys better." *