WHAT LAST NIGHT'S season-opening Olympic American boys' basketball game between Eastern and host Cherokee lacked in grace, it certainly made up for in grit.
There were more whistles than at a construction site near a Victoria's Secret.
Figures the grittiest of all players, Eastern's Shumeek Scott, would play the starring role, as his two foul shots with 0.8-second remaining gave the Vikings a remarkable 64-63 win over Cherokee.
"This is big, real big," Scott said soon after his winning free throws. "This is a conference win. It will give us a lot of confidence for the rest of the year. It's a great way to start the season."
Which is something no one would have thought an Eastern player, or coach Joe Murphy, would have said after the way the Vikings started the game.
Five minutes in, Eastern was behind, 14-2, and finished the first quarter down, 21-9. The Vikings shot airballs. They turned the ball over six times. They fouled so much, Cherokee was shooting one-and-ones a little more than 5 minutes into the game.
"Could we have started any colder?" Murphy asked.
Uh, no. But after that dreadful first quarter, his squad began to show life, cutting Cherokee's lead to 26-20 midway through the second. But Cherokee, thanks to six points by forward Ronson Quick, built the lead back up to 37-26 at the half.
That's when Scott and fellow senior Bobby Harris, last year's leading scorer, had a little talk with their teammates.
"We weren't making our shots that we should have been making in the beginning," said Harris, who finished with 15 points. "So I asked coach, and me and Shumeek had a talk, one on one, with the players. We said we had to step it up, and that's what we did. That's how we came out and did good in the second half."
It took time. After two free throws by Quick (18 points) made it 45-30 with 3:42 left in the third, Eastern started taking the captains' advice. The Vikings scored 15 of the next 19 points to end the quarter trailing by four at 49-45.
The burst was so fruitful because Scott and Harris weren't the only contributors. Lance Vernon started it with a pair of fouls shots, and Kyle Jose nailed a big trey to keep the comeback alive.
When the fourth quarter started, Scott left little doubt who would play the lead role in deciding this one.
After a layup by Jose cut the lead to 51-47, Scott scored his team's next nine points, closing the gap to 57-56 on a layup with 4:07 remaining. Scott finally gave Eastern the lead at 62-61 on a bullish drive to the basket with 1:29 left.
The teams then traded turnovers. Cherokee took a 63-62 lead on a backdoor layup by Bryan Cooper off an inbounds pass from Christian Jordan. Cooper did a terrific job of bringing his man toward the ball, then cutting to the basket for an easy layup with 9.3 seconds left.
That's when Eastern's designed play totally fell apart. And it wound up winning the game.
"It was designed to go to Bobby, but they jumped that," Murphy said. "Shumeek was the second option. Mike [Newman] did a good job of getting the ball to Shumeek, who made a nice drive."
Scott was fouled by Quick and calmly won the game with his free throws.
"Routine," Scott said. "Just like practice. No doubt. You saw my expression after I made them. I knew I was going to."
He was right. After the second one swished through for his 24th point of the night, Scott stood at the line stone-faced. Never a doubt.
"They're a good team," Scott said. "We always seem to get behind against them. Tonight, we were able to come back."
Thanks not only to the halftime speeches from Scott and Harris, but also some defensive adjustments by Murphy.
"We did a better job of helping out on Quick in the second half," Murphy said. "We made it hard for him to get baskets, and that was a key.
"And Shumeek is an offensive threat every time he touches the ball," Murphy said. "At the end of the game, they were getting tired. We could see that."
At 6-2, 220 pounds, Scott has a wonderful blend of quickness and strength that makes him a difficult matchup. Last night, it was a little quickness and a whole lot of strength. *