Sunday afternoon’s Philadelphia Public League Championship tilt was not the best game that the MLK High Cougars boys basketball team played this season.
But, when they corralled a rebound just before the buzzer to preserve a 46-44 win over the Constitution High Generals at the Liacouras Center, it became the most historic.
After Constitution junior forward Ahmad Gilbert’s last-second three-point attempt clanged off the front of the Cougars’ rim, MLK claimed its first-ever Public League title. It came in the same school year that their football-playing peers accomplished the same.
“Just like we planned it, right?” asked MLK Principal William Wade somewhat facetiously while clutching a trophy, handed to him by Superintendent William Hite, once hoisted by the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Rasheed Wallace.
To Cougars head coach Sean Colson, who split an NBA season between the Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets, the outcome was less about institutional planning and more about the mental toughness of his squad.
“We didn’t play a great game, but we just hung tough. Mentally tough,” said Colson at center court as his players took turns cutting down the basket to celebrate the victory.
“We always had talent; right now, we have a togetherness,” he continued, noting a lack of fan support for the program. “We play and coach for the guys in that locker room. That was not our best game, but we fought for each other.”
The game itself marked the first time since 2006 that teams from two traditional public schools squared off for the hoops championship, according to PL Executive Director Robert Coleman.
The Cougars jumped out to an early 6-2 lead, but it took a three pointer from senior guard/forward Gregory Bennett to knot the score at nine at the end of the first quarter.
The second quarter saw Sammy Foreman, the junior guard who transferred from a Vaux High squad that lost last year’s title game on this same court, add five points to help get the Cougars into halftime with a 19-18 lead.
In the third quarter, sophomore guard Jabri McCall caught fire, knocking down two three-pointers. His nine-point effort in the quarter not only gave the Cougars a 34-28 lead, but helped cement his game-MVP bona fides.
For the bulk of the fourth quarter, the Cougars only scored from the free-throw line (10 of its 12 points), and missed a few shots from the stripe in the process. Bennett fouled out with 2:12 remaining. The Generals kept chipping away, but never took the outright lead in the waning minutes.
After McCall missed a pair of free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining, a General drove down the court and sank what appeared to be a game-tying basket. It was waved off, though, as Coach Robert Moore had already called a timeout.
With 5.6 seconds left, Floyd Preito inbounded the ball which made its way to Gilbert, who missed the shot, leaving him with eight points on the game. With a rebound, the Cougars cemented their first-ever Public League title.
“We just kept our composure. It feels great,” said McCall, who led all scorers with 13.
He had to stop talking when a teammate interrupted the interview to make sure a reporter knew that he was talking to “the best sophomore point guard in Philadelphia.”
Second time’s a charm
It also felt great to Foreman, the transfer player over whom last year’s last-second loss to Imhotep still hovered.
“I thought about it before the game. I thought about it last week. I thought about it all the time. After the game last year, all I thought about was how I had to get back here,” Foreman told NewsWorks. “This just feels phenomenal.”
There’s not much time to savor Sunday’s historic feat, though. The Cougars continue on in the state-basketball tournament; they could face the winner of Monday’s Catholic League championship game between Neumann-Goretti and Roman Catholic.