By Ryan Buck
Warren Harding basketball saw the crowning of new royalty after Saturday night’s 53-51 win over Canton McKinley.
Harding senior King Garner, a slender 6-foot-1 combo guard, made the game’s decisive play in the final moments with the game tied at 51. After a Harding turnover on what the Raiders intended to be the game’s final possession, Garner knocked an outlet pass away from McKinley forward Marcellius Pittman inside the Bulldogs’ 3-point arc and drove to the hoop.
“I just had to make a play so we could win,” Garner said, a smile revealing a mouthful of braces enclosed by an amateur’s goatee. “I just saw [Pittman’s] eyes up. He was looking to throw it deep. I was just trying to make him throw a bad pass and I felt the ball hit my hand then tried to go make the layup.”
Pittman pushed Garner from behind as he rose for the shot with under five seconds left, sending him to the foul line.
Hours after honing his form at the team’s afternoon shoot-around, Garner sank both free throws, exercising a calm follow-through amidst the chaos that set in across the Harding gymnasium. Juleo Patterson’s running desperation 3-point attempt for McKinley caromed off the rim’s back iron as time expired.
Raiders coach Andy Vlajkovich watched his team overcome an 8-point third quarter deficit, then build a 7-point fourth quarter lead that evaporated in the final minutes. In a mistake-riddled, turnover-filled clash, Vlajkovich believed the difference was on his side.
“We just tried to draw up a little backdoor [isolation play for Garner], a quick hitter and we thought he was open,” Vlajkovich said of Harding’s last possession. “The pass was a little behind him, but King came up with the big play, the big turnover there, and he took it to the rim hard and he made both free throws. A little crazy ending to the game. Not exactly what I call great end-of-the-game management by myself or our team. That’s my fault, but we had the toughest kid on the floor tonight in King Garner.”
One night after falling at Lorain, the Raiders fell behind early and trailed 38-33 after three quarters.
Defensive pressure sparked a momentum-swinging 15-4 run highlighted by Anthony Bell’s 3-pointer from the left corner and capped off by two King free throws. Harding’s 49-42 lead disappeared almost as quickly when McKinley’s Jalen Olds willed his team back into the game with 7 points in the final minute, which gave him a game-high 19. Two Olds free throws led to the tie at 51.
The teams combined for 33 turnovers, some more important than others.
“It was sloppy, we turned it over a lot, our situational [execution] at the end wasn’t very good,” Vlajkovich said, “but at the end we had enough kids that wanted to win and I’m thankful for that.”
It’s highly unlikely that Garner’s homeroom desk will be replaced by any sort of throne come Monday morning, but don’t tell that to Vlajkovich, who could hardly believe Garner’s statline: 10 points, nine steals and five assists.
“Every big steal, key rebounds, made those two clutch free throws, he scores at the right time, loose balls,” Vlajkovich said. “I mean, he is so much better than any statistical thing you can say and I know that’s a cliche in coaching, but that kid’s a big reason why we won the game tonight.”