Almost exactly a week since his missed free throw sent St. Ignatius to a crushing defeat, Wildcats freshman Raymond Whitley hit the biggest shot of his young career from nearly the exact same spot.
Whitley banked in a floater from just in front of the free throw line with 2.6 seconds remaining as host St. Ignatius (12-8, 6-4 West Catholic Athletic League) escaped with a 59-57 win over Sacred Heart Cathedral and a season sweep of the Fightin’ Irish despite squandering a 10-point lead in the final three minutes.
“He made the play that competitors make at the end,” head coach Jason Greenfield said of Whitley, whose missed free throw with 2.2 seconds remaining against Serra sealed a one-point loss seven days earlier.
Just like they did in that devastating loss to the Padres, the Wildcats held a double-digit advantage in the fourth quarter on Tuesday night. It marked the third time they wasted a second half lead at home in five WCAL games, but unlike when they did so against Serra and St. Francis, they came away with the victory.
"Win or lose, we have to go through the same self-reflective process," Greenfield said. "What are the mistakes we make in the fourth quarter to blow leads, and how do we fix them?"
Andrew Cudden’s floater with 3:02 left put SI up 54-44, and Steele Labagh sank a corner three with 1:43 remaining to give the ‘Cats a 57-50 lead after Sacred Heart Cathedral (9-10, 3-6) had scored off back-to-back turnovers, but the Fightin’ Irish scored the next seven points to draw level behind their pair of Division I-bound football players.
Jerry Mixon Jr. scored on a drive, then set RL Miller up for a dunk with a block and stretch pass. Miller made one of two free throws with 48.3 seconds left to make it a two-point game, and after SI freshman Caeden Hutcherson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 25.8 on the clock, Mixon went coast-to-coast, scoring with 18.8 left to bring SHC level for the first time since the opening quarter.
Mixon showed off all of his skills during that run, and finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
“He’s an unselfish kid and he’s constantly showing it in all aspects of the game, no matter the sport,” head coach Caesar Smith said of the Oregon linebacker commit.
Though Mixon was a running back when he played offense, passing isn’t new to him. He moonlighted as SHC’s backup quarterback, and even threw a game-winning touchdown to Miller in August.
The 30 points that Mixon and Miller combined for marked a new high for the duo this season. Miller scored 12 of his 16 during the second half.
Still, it was Whitley, who had scored just four points all night and was assessed a technical foul before the game for dunking in warmups, that played the hero.
"If he stays off the rim in warmups, we win without all the stress," Greenfield noted.
Greenfield called timeout with 8.8 seconds left, and Whitley drove into the lane with Miller defending and Mixon providing help, then launched a floater from just in front of the free throw line for the decisive basket.
Fed Pernell, who scored 13 points for the Irish, launched an ill-fated half-court heave at the buzzer. SHC had called timeout after Whitley’s bucket, and the referees put two seconds back on the clock.
Less than a year into his high school career, Whitley has already proved to be a nuisance for the Irish. In the Bruce-Mahoney Game three weeks earlier, he racked up a game-high 18 points and 10 rebounds.
The Wildcats enjoyed a three-possession lead for much of the second half, but could never extend the gap beyond 12. They led 36-24 on a Whitley putback early in the third, but saw that lead dwindle to just five late in the quarter on a pair of Pernell free throws. Michael Manfreda’s putback early in the fourth quarter made it 43-40, the closest SHC had been since the start of the second quarter, but Labagh and Marcus Bast hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the home side a nine-point cushion.
Bast finished with 10 points on a night where bench scoring was otherwise hard to find. With Mixon and Manfreda in the starting lineup, SHC reserves scored just four points.
Hutcherson scored a game-high 23 for the Wildcats, including 18 in the first half. He authored SI’s first 10 points, then hit a 3-pointer off one of Labagh’s four assists as part of an 11-0 run that put the hosts up 18-10. His 3-pointer off a Kreekor Karageuzian to cap off the second quarter sent SI into the break with a 34-23 lead.
"Caeden has really been scoring, and he's doing it efficiently," Greenfield said. "I knew he could score, but watching him develop into an efficient scorer, a smart scorer, has been great."
Karageuzian finished with six points, matching Whitley, while accumulating seven rebounds and five assists. Labagh finished with nine points and six boards, and Theo Lamb scored just three points but collected a game-high nine rebounds.
Pernell had four assists for the Irish, while Manfreda finished with eight points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocks.
SI travels to St. Francis (11-8, 4-6) on Friday, while the Irish will host Mitty (17-3, 9-1).