FORT WORTH, Texas -- The area showdown that high school basketball fans have talked about for a couple of months turned out to be worthy of the anticipation.
Flower Mound Marcus star Marcus Smart blocked a 3-point shot by South Grand Prairie’s Jovan Austin as time expired to secure a gritty 39-38 victory in the Class 5A Region I championship game Saturday afternoon in front of 2,000 fans at Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center.
Marcus (37-2), the defending Class 5A state champion, earned a third straight trip to the state Final Four next weekend in Austin.
“To make it to state three straight years, not many can say that,’’ said Smart, who led all scorers with 19 points. “For the last few weeks all we’ve been hearing is that South Grand Prairie was going to take us down. A lot of people considered us the underdog today. South Grand Prairie is a great team, but we proved we still have the No. 1 defense in Texas.’’
South Grand Prairie (35-3) began its final possession under the Marcus basket and trailing by a point with 15 seconds remaining.
Marcus coach Danny Henderson made a defensive switch during the preceding timeout, putting Smart on Austin. A.J. Luckey had guarded Austin for much of the game, but had four fouls.
“We’ve been preparing for South Grand Prairie for two months because we knew this was day coming,’’ said Henderson. “We knew Austin would take the last shot and we wanted Marcus, with his extra height, to guard him.’’
After breaking token pressure in the backcourt, the Warriors moved 6-foot-8 post Chris Washburn to the 3-point line to set a pick for Austin.
“It’s a play they’d been using all day,’’ Smart said. “I went under the pick and got back to him quickly. I think I surprised him a little. By then the clock was at two and I knew he had to shoot. Because of my length, I was able to block it.’’
Too many times in that situation, the Oklahoma State signee said, defenders back off because they fear a foul will be called. “That’s a No. 1 mistake because when you don’t finish the play, that’s when they make the shot,’’ he said.
South Grand Prairie coach Brandon Bennett said the final play had three options: Washburn, rolling to the basket after the screen, Ben Emelogu in the corner for a 3-pointer or option No. 1 with Austin taking the shot.
“I thought we had the look we wanted,’’ said Bennett, who Henderson called an up-and-coming star in the field of coaching. “That’s why Smart is a McDonald’s All-American. There’s just so many things he can do to win a game.’’
South Grand Prairie’s final opportunity was set up by turnover by Marcus’ Nick Banyard. With a wide open dunk staring him in the face, the 6-foot-8 senior fumbled a pass out of bounds.
Reserve post Jared Hamilton accounted for Marcus' final points with a pair of free throws with 1:44 remaining to break a 37-37 deadlock. Hamilton had missed two free throws 40 seconds earlier.
“Coach Henderson could tell I was down on myself after missing the first two,‘’ Hamilton said. “He called me over and reminded me that I make them all the time in practice, and that got me to relax.‘’
The battle-tested Marauders got off to a quick 8-0 start, but South Grand Prairie, making its first regional tournament appearance since 1986, recovered, finally taking its first lead, 33-32, with a 3-point third-period buzzer beater by Washburn. The UTEP signee had 12 points and eight rebounds.
The Warriors’ lead went to three on an inside shot by Tyler Jacobs in the fourth quarter, but they missed a couple of chances to widen it.
Banyard (11 points) tied it with a 3-pointer with 3:40 to go.
The Warriors had one more lead, 37-35, on a runner by Austin with 3:10 to go. Smart tied it with two free throws 20 seconds later.
Following Hamilton’s free throws for the Marcus lead, Washburn made one of two foul shots with 33 seconds to go, his miss crawling across the basket before falling away.
“We’ve come a long way in a couple of years,’’ Bennett said. “I’m proud of what my guys have accomplished. South Grand Prairie isn’t going away.’’
Said Henderson: “South Grand Prairie is the toughest opponent we’ve played in this three-year stretch. But this group of guys I have, they’re winners. They do the things that winners need to do every day.’’