Damon Greer sat among his Cleveland High teammates Wednesday in the Taft gym but took little solace in the company.
Moments earlier, the 6-foot, 1-inch senior guard missed two free throws with eight seconds left in Cleveland's stunning 69-68 loss to Taft, a defeat that cost the Cavaliers the Valley League championship and scrambled the City Section 4-A Division playoff pairings.
Taft toppled Cleveland from a first-place tie by making 8 of 9 field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter. The Toreadors, who made 28 of 47 (59.5%) in the game, were led by senior guard Quincy Watts, who scored 28 points and had 7 rebounds, and junior guard Dedan Thomas, who handed out a school-record 20 assists to go with 12 points. Thomas has 131 assists this season, another school record.
But when junior forward Tony Middleton twice missed the front end of one-and-one situations in the last minute, it cracked an opening for Cleveland.
Only a minute earlier, Greer calmly made two free throws for his ninth and 10th points and when he was fouled after rebounding Richard Branham's missed field-goal attempt, he walked to the line with a chance to clinch the league title.
Greer's first shot circled the rim and popped out and his second bounced off the front of the rim. Still, amid a tangle of arms, he emerged with the rebound, but his last-second, off-balance heave was swatted to the floor by Watts.
Greer laughed derisively when asked how he felt.
"I wasn't nervous and I felt confident," he said about the final free throws. "But I feel like I choked. I feel like I don't have a friend in the world."
Friends no doubt will return but Cleveland's 14-game winning streak and 4 1/2-year mastery of Taft are gone. Cleveland (18-3, 10-2 in league play) can start a new streak against Fremont in Friday's first round of the playoffs, but the Cavaliers yield the league title to Fairfax (17-4, 11-1), which defeated El Camino Real, 77-59, Wednesday. Fairfax also gains the league's top-seeded position, putting Cleveland in the same bracket as Crenshaw, the nation's top-ranked team.
"That's a hell of a way to end league," Cleveland Coach Bob Braswell said disgustedly.
Taft Coach Jim Woodard would agree--minus the disgust.
Although the victory did not change the Toreadors' playoff draw--they still play San Pedro on Friday at Gardena High--the win nearly transported Woodard.
"Biggest win of the year? This is the biggest thrill in about five years. This is sweet, even if it means we have to play them again in the playoffs. They can't take this away from us."
But Michael Gray almost did. Cleveland's senior guard came off the bench in only his third game since returning after academic ineligibility to score a team-high 25 points, all seemingly from Larry Bird range.
Gray entered the game halfway through the first quarter with Cleveland trailing, 12-7, and immediately checked in with a three-point basket well beyond the 19-foot, 9-inch line. After two more baskets by Gray, the teams entered the second quarter tied, 14-14.
Cleveland made only 3 of 12 shots from the field in the period and Taft (15-6, 7-5) built an eight-point lead before settling for a 28-25 halftime advantage. Braswell gave his team a tongue-lashing during intermission and the team barely arrived on the court in time for the third-quarter tipoff.
But the Braswell bombast took little effect. Taft still led by three with 1:32 left in the quarter when Braswell launched another verbal assault, this one at Gray during a timeout.
Gray, who had been scoreless in the quarter, got the message and launched an assault of his own, making three three-point shots in a row. When Gray started the quarter with two more three-point shots for the game's sixth and seventh in three minutes, it looked like Taft's upset bid would wilt.