By Max Goodwin
The Center Yellowjackets were headed to the state tournament as champions of Class 4 District 14, appearing to outlast Pembroke Hill in a grueling physical game. With Center leading 33-32, Pembroke turned the ball over on what seemed to be its last possession.
Center kicked it out in transition as the last seconds ticked off the clock. Just as a Center guard appeared to have a clear path to the hoop a Pembroke Hill player fouled to stop the clock with just 1.4 seconds left to play. Center was headed to the line to shoot free throws with a one point lead and Pembroke’s chances would be limited to full court heave at the buzzer.
But it was all a dream. A dream interrupted by an unending whistle from a referee turned into a nightmare. That’s how it must feel as Center players woke up this morning, without a district championship plaque to celebrate, without a matchup in the state tournament scheduled. Just a 20-6 record cut short by an unimaginable turn of events.
A sequence that altered the course of a playoff game in such a cruel way that it seemed impossible even as it took place.
In the end the referees didn’t fault any of the players for the foul that changed the end of the game, but held the fans responsible for coming on to the court before that final second ticked off the clock. There were just a few who did, and immediately the court was cleared. But that wasn’t enough for the referees.
For a minute and thirty seconds they huddled discussing the call in the middle of the court, shooing away players that came near. As the realization of what exactly they were discussing crept over the Center players and coaches, waves of emotion appeared to be washing over them.
From half court a Pembroke player motioned, putting hands together in the form of a T, clearly asking the referees to call a technical on Center for fans coming onto the court. Center players pleaded with the referees from a distance not to make the call.
The longer the discussion went, the more Center players understood. They held their heads, they begged the referees and pleaded with the crowd itself. But it was too late. The events had already unfolded and the referees had made their decision. One of them walked to the scorers table, called the technical and awarded Pembroke Hill two free throws.
The reaction from the crowd was immediate, despair from the Center side, cheers from the Pembroke side. But Center still had one free throw from the open court foul that occurred before all of the mayhem.
It clanged off the rim.
At the other end, the referee gave the ball to Pembroke’s best free throw shooter with Center ahead, 33-32 and 1.4 seconds left. He made both.
Center heaved its last chance coming up short. The end was final, 34-33, with Pembroke Hill advancing to the state tournament.
“I would never have thought this is how my basketball career would end…lost for words,” senior Kortez Stevenson tweeted with along with a broken heart emoji upon seeing a video of the moment after the game.
Stevenson already had it tough in those final moments, having to watch from the bench after being called for his fifth personal foul. Once there was no denying that this nightmare had become reality, Stevenson pulled his Center jersey up to cover his face and eventually walked off the court.
Unfortunately the system is set up for my guys to fail and I will keep fighting until they succeed,” Center Coach LeDale Wooten said the morning after the game.
In early December, Center visited Pembroke Hill to play the first game in the school’s brand new multi-million dollar Bellis Athletic Center. Like Friday night’s playoff game, that matchup was a grinding defensive battle. Pembroke won 41-38.
The first matchup also had an intense atmosphere and questionable calls including a technical late in the game called on Center. The call could have easily been a double technical on both teams involved in shoving after a foul on the baseline. But it was called only against Center. That technical call impacted the outcome of that game as well.
These are the types of games that can be most difficult for a referee, a loud environment with physical teams in an emotional game. Wooten was asked after that game In December if he had any thoughts on the referees.
“Of course, we’ve been here before.” Wooten said. “I mean, we’re Center, we’re urban. It is what it is. We can’t complain. We don’t complain about that (referee calls).”
Center may have been there before, but no amount of experience could prepare somebody for how the season ended. Having a district title and a trip to the state tournament taken out from under them, not based on the actions of any player on the team, but a technical on fans that in itself did not appear necessary.
After all of the pandemonium played out on Friday night, people still stood around the Bellis Athletic Center with stunned looks on their faces, not quite sure what to do next. A man with a graying beard and a Center Yellowjackets t-shirt stepped to the edge of the court, careful not to step over the inbound line
“We all saw it!” he yelled before turning to leave. “We all saw what happened.”
The devastation on the faces of players was evident. Some were visibly shaken by the experience. Even assistant coaches wiped away tears. I was reminded of what coach LeDale Wooten told me after that game in December despite his team losing a tough game.
“They’re resilient kids who will come out and compete every day,” Wooten said. “I’m proud of them, honestly, I’m so proud of them.”
Saturday, Coach Wooten received a text. “A message I received from a Pembroke Hill parent…Genuine real people are becoming extinct. Still struggling but I know God has a bigger plan,” he tweeted along with the message.
“Sir. I was at that game last night as a parent of a pembroke 4th grade hooper and was gutted about how that game ended for y’all. You are so right to be proud of your boys and I wanted to tell you that I was incredibly impressed with your obvious commitment to helping them be the best young men they can be. My family had a long conversation about fairness last night and all of us went to bed wishing for only the best for you and your team. Much love.”