Mike Smelkinson almost didn't get to wear his crown.
With the Howard County championship on the line, five seconds left in regulation and his team trailing by two points, the Long Reach point guard missed the front end of a one-and-one - one of his rare mistakes for a game in which he scored 26 points and had six assists, three rebounds and two steals.
Teammate Zach Hines picked him up, however, grabbed the rebound and hit a short jumper to send the game to overtime, where the Lightning pulled away from Atholton to win, 79-67.
"I missed the free throw, and he saved me," said Smelkinson, a 5-foot-5, 135-pound senior who raced around the court during a wild victory celebration wearing a gold crown. "That's what teammates are for."
Veteran Long Reach coach Al Moraz was excited about his team's performance, and especially about Smelkinson's. "It was the best individual effort I can remember in a long time," said Moraz . "He was not going to let us lose."
The win clinched at least a tie for the county title for No. 15 Long Reach (17-4 overall, 16-3 league). The Lightning can win the championship outright Monday against Oakland Mills. It would be Long Reach's second title, having taken the first in 2001.
"It was an all-or-nothing shot," said Hines, a 6-5 senior who has come on strong toward the end of the season. He scored 13 points and had 12 rebounds last night at Long Reach, where a packed house seemed to give the Lightning an advantage in overtime.
Hines also praised Smelkinson: "He's our motivator.
Smelkinson hit a three-point basket to start the overtime period, and then Hines followed with two free throws to put the Raiders in a 65-60 hole they could not escape.
"This was the best game emotionally that I've ever been a part of," said Smelkinson, who scored his 1,000th career point on his first basket. "We played our hearts out."
Free-throw shooting proved crucial.
Atholton, which had beaten Long Reach by six points earlier this season at home by hitting 14-for-14 at the foul line in the fourth quarter, faltered last night before the unfriendly crowd and in the hot gym. They were 3-for-6 at the line in the fourth quarter and 2-for-6 in overtime.
Atholton (14-6, 14-4) had a 59-52 lead with just over two minutes to play but squandered it at the foul line by missing the front end of two one-and-ones.
Craig Sauers led Atholton with 17 points and Jonas Vaitkus had 14, but it just wasn't enough.
"We played well enough to win but just didn't get a rebound here and there and didn't sink free throws," said Raiders coach Jim Albert.