By Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Blue Cain turned a precarious situation for IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) into an instant classic ending.
IMG had coughed up a big lead in the fourth quarter to Prolific Prep (Napa, Calif.). But Cain, a Georgia Tech pledge and long-distance shooting specialist, doesn’t rattle easy.
The Crew had tied the game at 63 with Auburn-bound guard Aden Holloway swished a fadeaway three-point field goal with 8.2 seconds remaining. After a timeout it was chaos until Cain relied on his instincts.
There was no time to react. The Crew swarmed Cain with a double team just inside the center court.
The clock was … tick ….tick … ticking. Nearly empty.
Cain spun quickly to face the basket and flipped a 45-footer that banked in as time expired and the Ascender escaped with a thrilling 66-63 win over Prolific Thursday afternoon at the GEICO High School Nationals quarterfinals inside the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWest State University.
A stunned, plucky Crew sank to the floor in disbelief. Cain too was shocked but was suddenly mobbed by his teammates who will live to play another day. The Ascenders will face AZ Compass Prep (Chandler, Ariz.) Friday in the semifinals.
Surely the sequence is worth ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Day and will go down in GEICO Nationals lore as the most improbable ending. Only a tip-in at the buzzer in the 2016 championship game (it was then known as the Dick’s Nationals), propelling Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of the Wilson, Va.), to the title can top this one.
Boy, it was a heckuva of an ending as IMG blew a 24-point lead in the second half.
Hard luck Prolific Prep, which won the Grind Session World Championships two weeks prior, finished 35-2.
Cain finished with a game-high 21 points, making 8 of 12 shots and 3 of 5 from downtown. Khani Rooths had 13 points and 5 rebound while teammates Jacoi Hutchinson and Jamie Kaiser Jr. threw in 11 apiece.
Holloway, who helped spearhead the comeback, scored 21 points, connecting on 4 of 10 3-pointers. Stokes had 16 and Trey Green 10 in the loss.
Entering the third, the Crew were down 21 points but won the quarter 30-12 and nearly forced overtime. Cain didn’t flinch when it mattered most for sixth-seeded IMG, which improved 18-7.
A Holloway trey with 5:38 left breathed life into the Crew, which were behind 11 at 55-44. They cut into the deficit at 55-48 before IMG pulled ahead 59-48 with just under four minutes.
Midway through the third quarter, Prolific found itself in a bind down 17 points and then 14 after Holloway’s 3-pointers with 3:58 left made it 43-29.
The game turned into a rout late in the third when Rooths hammered down a rim-rattling dunk and a 54-32 scoreline. IMG would carry a comfortable 54-33 advantage into the fourth after a 22-9 run.
The fortunes of the game changed quickly with an unscripted close.
Despite trailing by eight points at halftime, 32-24, the Crew could have found itself in a deeper hole. After an initial run that spotted it a temporary lead in the second, IMG dug deeper and took a 32-18 advantage with 2:40 left.
Stokes chopped the deficit into single figures by the break, swishing a 3-pointer with four seconds left.
Kaiser topped the Ascenders with 11 points, draining three treys, and Cain added seven. The Ascenders forced nine turnovers, converting miscues into 12 points. They also shot 50% (13 of 26), and 66.7% on threes.
Holloway scored nine points and Stokes had six for the Crew, which shot 9 of 24 and only 1 of 10 from the arc. The Crew did most of its scoring in the paint with 14 of 24 points coming from close range.
IMG looked sharp in the opening period but the evaporated in a flash.
It didn’t take long for the Crew to right the ship. Down as many as 10 points in the first, it surged ahead 16-15 in in the opening minute of the second on a pair of slam dunks in transition.
IMG then seized control with a 12-2 surge and 29-18 lead when Cain deposited a 3-pointer with 4:49 remaining in the half.
The Ascenders held a 15-12 lead after one. In the quarter, they were up 10-2 to start; 15-6; and 15-10. Kaiser scored six points.
For the first time, NBA scouts were allowed in the venue. More than 40 scouts from 27 NBA teams ventured to southwest Florida. They saw exciting games.
However, today was a “blue day” belonging to Cain and IMG.