When forward Justin Burrell settles in for a free throw, he’s got two things on his mind. The first, of course, is making the shot. The second is why.
“I have a little thing I say whenever I shoot a free throw. I lock in, and I say, ‘My daughter has to eat.’ And that allows me to not be in the moment,” he said. “But it was so difficult [Friday] not to be in the moment.”
With Overseas Elite just one point away from victory in the championship game of The Basketball Tournament on Friday night, Burrell set up from the foul line. He paused, one last moment of peace before his teammates rushed him. His foul shot then glided into the basket for the game-winner in a 70-58 victory over Eberlein Drive at Morgan State.
“As a child, you do that, and you say, ‘This is for game.’ It was so overwhelming and exciting. Fortunately, I was able to make the first one,” he said, with a grin.
At first, the Elite didn’t cruise Friday. They instead survived, outlasting an Eberlein Drive team nipping at a tenuous lead from the match’s start.
But when Burrell’s free throw went through and a rainfall of blue, white and gold confetti streamed on their shoulders, the Elite knew they had captured their fourth straight TBT crown, four in just five years of the tournament’s existence.
With the win, the Elite pocketed $2 million, raising their total winnings to $7 million since their 25-0 dynasty began.
Burrell laughed when holding the comically large check. When he had played for runner-up Team Barstool in the tournament’s first year, he had spent all of his money the night before the championship game, so sure he’d win. In 2018, as part of a team potentially riding into the night as an eternally unbeaten team, he might as well forget about those days.
“I’m putting this [check] in my office when I get home,” he said.
Elite guard Errick McCollum knew the victory had been has last as a member of the Overseas Elite. One of the pioneers of the first team, the 30-year-old international basketball veteran said he’ll put family first next summer. But this night, with the team swarming around him, he knew he had helped craft a culture that would continue on without him.
It didn’t matter if anyone thought of them as the same level as the Golden State Warriors, UConn women’s basketball or any other legacy team.
“People don’t give us the respect that’s known, that we deserve, because obviously it’s not the NBA, or Euroleague, whatever,” McCollum said. “But this is an open competition, it’s the best players in the world outside the NBA. Everybody knows who we are.”
Immediately, both teams learned they were more evenly matched than maybe either expected. Center Willie Reed led the Drive to the board first on a free throw that circled the rim; center DeAndre Kane responded by a whip-quick layup for the Elite. But both teams became more acquainted with missing the net than actually making anything — with half the first quarter gone, the Elite were barely leading the Drive, 7-5.
What had been an overtly acrobatic team Thursday, the Drive became grounded in the first frame. Likewise, the Elite — who had an explosive start against the Golden Eagles in the semifinals, running out to a 13-0 lead — felt the Drive’s hot breath on their neck, as Jerome Randle knotted it up at 12 with 2:18 on the clock.
The Elite had, well, elite tricks up their sleeves. With the final seconds whittling down, Kane waited out the clock before firing a last-second pass to Jhondre Jefferson, whose layup gave the Elite as big of a lead as they were going to get over this Drive team early, 17-12 after nine minutes.
So the Drive got crafty in response. Rather than each player trying to do it on his own, they began to flash some of the athletic plays they demonstrated the night before, in tune with one another.
“We expected a championship effort. They gave one,” Elite head coach Marc Hughes said.
The quintet on the floor flicked passes across the paint to keep the Elite chasing them until former Golden State Warriors forward James Michael McAdoo was ready, dropping the ball in to open the second quarter. Before long, Drive guard Donald Sloan had them tied up again, 22-22.
But sometimes the game was out of the Drive’s hands.
With the ball in Randle’s hands, he tried to start a fast break, only to bump into the referee. The ball was jarred from his hands, skittering out of bounds — effectively ending what could have been a chance for the Michigan-based team to build a lead for the first time. That was then followed by a slam dunk from Elite forward D.J. Kennedy, who put his team back in control.
Randle then wound down the clock before drawing Elite guard Kyle Fogg into a foul. When the buzzer sounded at halftime, the Elite clutched a vapor-thin lead, 35-33.
The Drive outscored the Elite in the second frame, 21-18, but to really pull away from the three-time defending champions, they needed a true run.
The third quarter proved, instead, to be more of the same. Both teams popped the occasional layup to break stretches of missed baskets and offensive rebounds. At the end of the quarter, the Elite led the Drive by just two, 52-50. They had each netted just 17 points.
“As many offensive rebounds as possible” became both teams’ strategy. Through the third, the Elite had 15 and the Drive 10 with neither team shooting better than 30.8 percent.
This was not the same dominance the Elite held over the Golden Eagles on Thursday night. They wanted that feeling back.
“When you play a team like that, they’re very talented, but they only have two ball-hitters. I figured, I deny one of them. … We just tried to make them work,” McCollum said. “We just played yesterday — Randle, Sloan couldn’t keep that same intensity for another game the next day.”
So the champions burst onto the court in the fourth frame, barraging the Drive with seven points in just one minute, led by Fogg and an inbound steal by McCollum. In that same stretch, the Detroit-area team had nothing.
“We’re a team that makes runs. When we make runs, it kind of just deflates them,” McCollum said. “I know when I got that steal after Kyle’s 3, boom boom, one-point game turns into a quick seven-point game, and we get another bucket, now its nine.”
The Elite rode their longest advantage of the night (63-54) into Elam ending with the magic target at 70. TBT mostly follows NCAA rules but invokes the Elam ending. At the first dead ball after the four-minute mark in the fourth quarter, the game clock shuts off. A target score is set by adding seven to the leading team’s score. The first team to reach the target score wins.
The Drive drew two fouls to open the final dash, bouncing the rim right and left, also going 2-for-2 on free throws. Any hope of a comeback crumbled as Randle was charged with a flagrant foul and Burrell floated the game-winning free throw into the basket.
Burrell led the Elite with 15 points and eight rebounds — seven in the fourth quarter alone — but it was a close game. Both Kennedy and guard Errick McCollum finished with 14 points. Kennedy had nine rebounds and McCollum grabbed five.
Randle and Sloan led the Drive with 14 points each while McAdoo scored 13. Jeremy Evans added nine points and 12 rebounds.