SPOKANE, WASH. — Isaiah Miles had practiced taking game-winning shots for years back home in Baltimore, counting down the final seconds on the clock out loud and launching right before the imaginary final buzzer sounded in his head.
The shots weren't necessarily to win an NCAA tournament game, or even an NCAA tournament championship. The younger Miles was, the bigger he dreamed. In his mind, it was the NBA Finals.
"Shots like that are a dream come true," Miles said Friday night.
When the opportunity came to take what turned out to be the game-winner in a 78-76 victory over No. 9 seeded Cincinnati at Spokane Arena, the 6-foot-7 senior from Baltimore (Milford Mill) didn't hesitate.
A 3-pointer from the left wing for Miles put the eighth-seeded Hawks ahead with nine seconds left. The Bearcats raced downcourt and forward Octavius Ellis dunked right before the buzzer but didn't let go of the ball until after time had expired.
"It's just an amazing feeling," Miles said of the first game-winner he had ever hit playing organized basketball. "But I definitely want to credit DeAndre' [Bembry] for looking for me. The play – and the credit [goes to] coach [Phil Martelli] for the play."
Bembry, who scored 20 of his team-high 23 points in the first half, drew the double-team that had been coming at him since the second half began and found his fellow senior a few feet away.
"Every time a team [double-teams him], these two guys step up," Bembry said of Miles and guard Aaron Brown, who had scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half. I told Zeke [Miles] at half, 'This is your half' and he came out and made some big shots."
Miles finished the half with 14 of his 19 points by making five-of-eight from the field, including two of three on 3-pointers. After putting the Hawks ahead, 72-71, with a lob layup with a little over four minutes left, Miles missed a layup with 1:45 remaining with the Hawks leading 75-71.
Cincinnati followed with a 3-pointer by Farad Cobb eight seconds later and took the lead with 16 seconds to go on a follow dunk by Jacob Evans. Martelli called timeout.
Asked if Miles was the first option, Martelli said, "He was option No. 1. DeAndre' was going to take if off the ball screen, which he did. And Isaiah's supposed to stretch a little bit further…I had a sneaking suspicion that DeAndre' would throw the ball back to Isaiah and want Isaiah to get the ball in the air."
Before going back on the floor, Miles asked a student manager to see the white board with the play Martelli had drawn up.
"It was just to remind myself," said Miles. "Coach drew up a really good play and I didn't want to screw it up. So just double-checking myself."
Miles also made sure to calm his nerves.
"Going into the play after it was written up, I was thinking, 'If DeAndre passes it to me, I'm going to take my shot, I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself," Miles said ."I just gathered myself and shot it like I normally shoot."
The excitement of the potential game-winner seemed short lived, as Ellis went in for his two-handed dunk. But after several minutes of checking replays, the officials waved it off and the celebration began for the Hawks.
"I was sitting on the bench just relaxing, chilling to see what the call [was going to be]," Bembry said. "Isaiah was just yelling at everybody. So it was just different mixed emotions."
When a reporter wanted to know why Miles was so vocal, he smiled.
"When I saw the replay, I knew I didn't think it was good," he said. "His fingertips were still on [the ball], but everyone was telling me, 'Calm down, calm down, we might have to play overtime. Relax.'"
The shot by Miles capped off an emotional day for both he and Martelli.
Earlier in the day, Martelli's son, an assistant coach at Delaware, was fired with the rest of the coaching staff. Right before game time, Miles saw his mother, Tammi, in the stands after arriving from California, where she was on business for her duties as an investigator for the Washington, D.C. police department.
"She surprised me," Miles said. "I looked into the stands and she was waving at me."
It didn't surprise Martelli that Miles, who spent much of the first half in foul trouble, hit the game-winner. It was the highlight – so far – of a senior year in which Miles dropped 20 pounds over the summer and wound up having his best season by far at St. Joseph's.
"There's a lot of shots Isaiah's envisioned since last April, to see that one go in, because he's envisioned it," Martelli said.
Miles started imagining the moment long before he got to college.
"I've been practicing that since seventh grade and middle school," Miles said.
It might not have been for the NBA Finals, but it was still pretty big. It sets up a showdown Sunday at 9:40 p.m. with the West regional's No. 1 seed Oregon, which earlier in the night crushed No. 16 seed Holy Cross, 91-52.
"I love that we're playing them, because we match up to them really well," Miles said. "This team doesn't have anyone super big or super tall. It's going to be a bare-knuckle, shock the world, basically."
And to think, it could even get better for Miles and the Hawks.