Westover’s Mike Green walks off the court with his face buried in his jersey after Columbia’s Keuntay Puckett hit a game-winning buzzer beater to stun the Patriots in Saturday’s Class AAAA state semifinal game. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)
CARROLLTON — Westover’s C.J. Davis lay on his back almost directly underneath the basket as he watched the ball fall through the bottom of the net.
And then it was over.
In one stunning, heartbreaking moment it was over.
“As soon as I looked up I saw the ball go through and then I heard the buzzer,” Davis said. “And all I was wondering was if it counted.”
It did, and it gave Columbia a stunning 57-55 victory in Saturday’s Class AAAA Final Four game in Carrollton, where the Patriots and Eagles traded blows down the stretch in a back-and-forth classic.
The final seconds of the battle left the Westover players in tears, scattered across the floor — some lying on the ground and others with their faces buried in their jerseys — as Columbia celebrated its fifth straight trip to the state championship game.
For Westover, it was a heartbreaker.
With 51 seconds left, Westover’s Mike Green converted a 3-point play to tie the game at 55, but Columbia held for the final shot, and with seven seconds left Columbia’s Anthony Rice drove to his right and lifted a layup toward the rim.
Davis was there to meet Rice and swatted away the layup with two seconds left, but the ball landed in the hands of Columbia’s Keuntay Puckett, who tossed it into the basket as the buzzer sounded.
It was a brutal ending to one of the finest games Westover had played all season.
“To come all the way and lose like that, I just feel like breaking down and crying right now,” said Davis, who finished with nine points. “I’m trying to hold it in.”
Westover junior Jordan Floyd was one of the Patriots on the court when the 6-foot-7 Davis reached high into the air to block Rice’s shot.
“I thought it was overtime, but then as soon as it hit the net I broke down,” Floyd said. “That was it. We had worked so hard to get to this point, and to have our goals crushed that way leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. It was shocking.”
It was one of those right-place-right-time moments for Puckett, who grabbed a ball that normally would have ended up out of bounds or halfway across the court.
“That’s usually a ball that people are scrambling on the floor to get, but it dropped right in his hands,” Westover coach Dallis Smith said. “It was a blur.”
Puckett scored a game-high 17 points for the state-ranked No. 1 Eagles, who will play either Joneboro or Alexander in Thursday’s state title game.
“A few games ago (Puckett) missed a couple of big free throws down the stretch and he was kind of despondent about that,” Columbia coach Kerry Sandifer said. “(Saturday) the kid scored 17 points, knocked down 7-of-7 free throws and hit the game-winner. I told him, ‘That’s the way it all comes back around.’ “
The buzzer beater ended a Westover season that was turning into one of the program’s most special runs in years. The Patriots entered Saturday’s game with a 10-game winning streak after taking the Region 1-AAAA tournament and dominating in the first three rounds of the state playoffs.
“Our kids came together at the right time and believed in everything we had been teaching and telling them to do,” Smith said. “I’m just so proud of all of them because of the effort they gave us.”
The teams traded the lead back and forth in the first half, but Columbia pulled away toward halftime and took a 29-25 advantage into the break. In the third quarter, Westover grabbed an early lead, but Columbia snatched it right back and was ahead 42-38 going into the fourth quarter. Columbia’s Nick Singleton opened the fourth quarter with a bucket to stretch his team’s lead to six points, but Floyd responded with a 3-pointer and neither team led by more than three points the rest of the way.
Floyd had 10 of his team-high 12 points in the fourth quarter, and scored Westover’s first seven points of the period.
“I looked up at the scoreboard and saw that we were down,” Floyd said. “I am one of the scorers on the team, and coach always tells me to play with confidence. I just took that confidence to another level.”
In the final seven minutes there were four lead changes before Green’s acrobatic 3-point play that tied it up with 51 seconds left.
“I thought the tables had turned there a little bit,” Smith said about the game-tying bucket and free throw.
Green added: “After we tied it I was thinking, ‘We are going to have overtime. We are going to have overtime. We are going to have another chance.’ “
The Patriots never touched the ball on offense again.
Columbia stalled for the next 40 seconds and narrowly avoided a steal from Westover’s Dunavon Robinson that would have resulted in a sure layup with 15 seconds left. With seven seconds on the clock, Rice lowered his head and drove down the right side of the lane where Davis was waiting with his outstretched right hand.
Davis was knocked to the ground after the block and stayed there with his hands over his face as Puckett danced to his bench.
“Once I realized it counted, I just wanted to get out. I just wanted to go home,” said Davis, one of six seniors on Westover’s roster. “It wasn’t supposed to be our time to lose. We were supposed to be playing in the next game, and for us to lose by a buzzer beater …”
Davis trailed off without finishing the sentence. He didn’t need to, not after this one. Not after the tears in his eyes told you all you needed to know.
“I’m just proud of these guys,” Smith said before stepping on the bus to head back to Albany. “I’m proud of these seniors and the way they fought. The effort they gave was all I could ask for.”