Moments before Fremont High took on Taft on Wednesday night, an interloper committed an act of absolute sacrilege at midcourt.
A Fremont fan walked to the painted emblem of Taft's mascot, a Toreador, and did an ad-lib soft shoe. He followed that with a little Taft tap-dance. He made sure everyone in the overflow audience saw what was happening, and he liked the response so much he stomped the mascot again for good measure.
It was all in good fun, yet it was also prophetic. Fremont's George McLin made the first of two free throws with three seconds left as the Pathfinders rallied from a five-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Taft, 54-53, in a quarterfinal game of the City Section 4-A Division playoffs at Taft.
McLin, who finished with eight points, did quite a dance after his free throw, which capped a 14-8 fourth-quarter rally by Fremont. The 6-2 senior guard, who lifted Fremont into a semifinal playoff game against Crenshaw at the Sports Arena on Friday, was carried off the floor by dozens of Pathfinder faithful within a few feet of the pregame celebration.
Fremont Coach Sam Sullivan could have picked a better prospect to put at the line. In fact, about 12 other players came to mind.
"Is he a good free-throw shooter? Hardly," Sullivan quipped. "He must be in the 60% range."
Taft's Quincy Watts tied the score, 53-53, on an eight-foot jump shot with 47 seconds left. Fremont inbounded the ball and worked it inside to McLin, who was fouled by Lamont Koonce, his fifth of the game. Taft called a timeout before the first free throw to give McLin time to think about the chilling feat he faced.
"They tried to ice me," McLin said with a smile. "It didn't work."
McLin actually cold-cocked Taft (17-7) by unintentionally missing the second free throw, which was rebounded by Taft's Tony Moten. A Toreador timeout stopped the clock with two seconds remaining, but Taft could manage only a desperation shot from midcourt as the game ended--and more dancing began.
"We would have been better off if he'd made it, at least we'd have gotten the ball at half court," Taft Coach Jim Woodard said, his voice trailing off as he spoke. "Only one point from the Sports Arena. It's hard to believe."
Moten, who finished with a team-high 17 points, kept Taft alive in the third quarter, scoring 11 of the team's 17 points. Moten was 5 of 5 in the quarter, all from long range, as Taft took a 45-40 lead into the final quarter.
Fremont's answer to Moten was senior forward Darrin Dafney, who had seven points in the third quarter and a game-high 23 points and 11 rebounds. With Dafney--who will attend UCLA in the fall--keeping the Pathfinders close, the Fremont defense put the clamps on Moten.
"Moten had me scared to death," Sullivan said.
In the fourth quarter, Taft had a big opportunity to take control. Fremont (14-9) turned the ball over on its first three possessions, but Taft failed to convert, missing on its first five shots.
It would not get much better. Taft guard Quincy Watts, who finished with 15 points, scored all eight of Taft's points in the period as the Toreador offense bogged down.
With Taft's half-court offense struggling, Fremont used the opening to make up ground. Senior guard Ronald Hawkins scored on a fast break with 1:55 left after a miss by Koonce, giving Fremont the lead for the first time, 51-49.