PINE BLUFF, Ark. — Kevin Rembert has been been doing a number on Mater Dei High School Coach Gary McKnight's blood pressure this week.
One minute, the Monarch forward is blowing a wide open layup or making a costly turnover. The next, he's making the game-winning jump shot.
Mr. Enigma was at it again Friday night. Several moments after missing an easy shot from underneath that could have cut the deficit to one point, Rembert made a 12-foot jumper with seven seconds remaining to lift the Monarchs to a 38-37 victory over Hialeah-Miami Lakes High in a semifinal game of the King Cotton Tournament.
An estimated crowd of 2,500 in the Pine Bluff Convention Center watched Mater Dei come from five points down with 2:50 left to score six unanswered points for the victory.
Once again, it was Rembert who came through at the end. The senior, whose tip-in Wednesday night with six seconds left in overtime gave Mater Dei a 49-47 quarterfinal victory over Whitehaven High of Memphis, Tenn., took a pass from Chris Patton, dribbled toward the right side of the free-throw line and pulled up for the jumper.
The ball hit nothing but net on the way down, and the Monarchs began their celebration.
Trojan guard Chris Corchiani, who missed the front end of a one-and-one situation with 25 seconds left to give Mater Dei another chance, dribbled the length of the court, but his 25-foot, running jumper hit the front of the rim, the backboard and bounced away as the buzzer sounded.
The Monarchs' victory sets up tonight's 6:30 PST showdown between Mater Dei (12-0 and ranked ninth in the nation by USA Today) and top-ranked Flint Hill Prep, of Oakton, Va. (9-0).
"Our goal was to get an opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the nation," McKnight said. "We'll know exactly where we stand after this."
The Monarchs appeared headed for the third-place game when they fell behind, 37-32, with 2:50 left, but Mike Hopkins made a jumper from the left corner to make it 37-34 with 1:34 to go.
The Trojans, who had used a spread offense for most of the game, went to the delay, but Corchiani dribbled the ball off his foot and into the hands of a Monarch player.
Center LeRon Ellis was fouled on Mater Dei's next possession and made both free throws to make it 37-36 with 1:05 left.
Mater Dei's chances appeared to diminish when Ellis, who scored 14 points, fouled out with 30 seconds left. But Corchiani's miss at the line gave the Monarchs new life.
"I would have bet my life Chris makes those free throws," said Hialeah Lakes Coach Gabe Corchiani, Chris' father. "He's been doing it since he was 7 years old. There's no way we should lost a game with a five-point lead."
McKnight had trouble figuring this one out, too. He couldn't understand why the Trojans, who have four players headed for Division I colleges next year, went to a spread offense and a slow-down game.
"If you had all that talent, a front line of 6-9 and 6-8, wouldn't you play?" McKnight said. "I could see it if they were all 5-10 guys, but they have some guys who can play. Of course, they almost won the game, too."
Gabe Corchiani defended his tactics. "That's what we do best," he said. "We were 35-4 and won a state championship with that last year."
The victory was especially gratifying for the Monarchs, because the game had a few tense, heated moments. Words were exchanged several times, but there were no fights.
The tone was set hours before, when the teams boarded their buses at the hotel.
"We passed them, and they started cussing, telling us we were no good, that we had no right to be here," Rembert said. "We were fired up as it was, but when we got to the game, we just took off."
Ellis did his part to ignite the Monarchs. After a Hialeah Lakes player had allegedly ridiculed Rembert in the hotel lobby earlier Friday, Ellis, disguising his voice, called several of his teammates in their rooms.
"I made it sound like I was a Hialeah player and told them that Mater Dei was no good, that Lakes was gonna be in the final," Ellis said. "I held the phone away, so my voice sounded funny. It was just a little trick to get them fired up."
Chris Corchiani said that one of the Trojan assistants had overheard a Monarch player say Friday that Mater Dei would be playing "some sorry team from Orlando."
Said Corchiani: "That fired us up. The game got kind of rough, but that was just emotions. It's all part of the game."
The Trojans played a box-and-one defense, with Derrick Knowles doing an excellent job on Ellis, who had scored 32 points Wednesday night. But with Hialeah Lakes collapsing on the center, Monarch guards Mike Hopkins (eight points) and Erik Quigley (six points) came through with some clutch shooting.
"I'll do whatever it takes to win," Ellis said. "Tonight, I was content to post up and draw two men to me. It worked pretty good for most of the game, and Kevin came through in the end."
Like he always does.
King Cotton Notes
Mater Dei guard Chris Patton scored only two points, but his basket was a big one, a jumper with 3:32 left to bring the Monarchs to within three, 35-32. The senior also had six assists and didn't commit a turnover. "Patton doesn't score, but he doesn't make mistakes," Coach Gary McKnight said. "He had a big basket tonight. That brought his average up to two."