Centennial's Javon Smith spent most of last year's state championship run cheering from the bench. On Friday, in the season opener on the road against River Hill, the senior guard got the chance to play the role of hero.
Smith stepped up and sank two foul shots with 1.2 seconds left in a tie game to lift the Eagles to a 37-35 victory over the Hawks.
"I worked hard in the offseason, so I feel confident in my abilities to perform in those situations," said Smith, who added that he wasn't feeling nervous. "I was just thinking, 'Bring it home.' Coach told me he believed in me and I had confidence I could knock them down."
Centennial coach Chad Hollwedel said he couldn't have been happier to see Smith (8 points) get rewarded for the time he's put in since last year.
"For him to say he worked hard is a complete understatement. To come from where he was last year, basically getting zero quality minutes, he had to work his butt off during the offseason to get to where he is now," Hollwedel said. "So when he was going up there at the end, I told him 'You deserve this, go knock them down. You're a great shooter.' And he did."
While Centennial, which was led by a game-high 16 points from Tom Brown, ultimately pulled out the win, there was nothing easy about it.
River Hill (0-1) set the tone from the very beginning with a slow-down methodical pace. By the end of the first quarter, following a three-point play by Dylan Mitchell, the Hawks held an 11-7 advantage.
"That was a blue print of what I wanted and that's a credit to these kids, because they came out and ran things exactly like we talked about," River Hill coach Matt Graves said.
Centennial settled in, though, during the second quarter, as Brown made a couple shots around the basket and Smith hit a big three to allow the Eagles to grab the lead at the half, 17-14.
Centennial never put the game away, but also never trailed again after that point. The Eagles still led by three, 28-25, by the end of the third quarter.
Then in the fourth, the Eagles'Andrew Hohmann took his turn in the spotlight with back-to-back three-point plays to push the lead at the time up to six with roughly five minutes left.
But River Hill simply refused to go away. Led by Marc DeSimone, who finished with a team-high 13 points, the Hawks hung tough.
"To come in and play in a game of this magnitude, this early with the style that they play, it was very difficult. We just can't duplicate the way (River Hill plays) the zone, because we don't play that," Hollwedel said. "On the other side, they do a really good job of working for quality shots and they wear you down a little. Matt does an incredible job with those kids and they played really well."
A mid-range jumper by DeSimone with just under a minute left made it a one-point game. Then, with 14 seconds left, the Hawks senior guard tied things by making one of two from the foul line.
But on the next possession, Smith took a feed from Michael Merkey in the paint and was fouled going to the basket. He calmly stepped up with the game in the balance and hit nothing but net on two straight shots.
River Hill's desperation length-of-the-court pass on the ensuing inbounds was off the mark and Centennial celebrated the victory.
"It was really important to win this because we came off a state championship and we didn't want to start with a loss," Smith said. "We wanted to come out strong and now stay strong throughout the season."
River Hill's leading returning scorer coming into the season — Jaden Martin (3 points) — got hurt in the opening minute of the game when he rolled an ankle. He did not return.
Despite the loss, Graves had nothing but praise for his kids and their effort.
"We had everything but the finish and we shot 5-12 from the foul line, which played a big role down the stretch. But we forced them to play our style of game and we gave ourselves a real chance to win," he said. "The kids saw tonight what we can do when everyone buys in and that's huge. If we play like that all season, we are going to win our fair share of games."
Centennial 37, River Hill 35
C (1-0): Brown 16, Smith 8, Hohmann 6, Merkey 3, Fowler 3, White 1.
RH (0-1): DeSimone 13, Clark 6, Mitchell 4, Robinson 3, Martin 3, Ndiritu 3, Daniels 3.