SAN BERNARDINO — The smile on David Johnson’s face was because of the way the Aquinas boys basketball team played Tuesday.
The chuckle and sighs of relief that followed that smile were for the bizarre fashion his Falcons held on for the victory.
Aquinas had a number of opportunities to seal the deal in overtime, but a rash of turnovers during the closing minute gave Linfield Christian a chance to snatch a victory. In the end, however, Aquinas managed to walk away with a 60-59 win in the showdown between the Ambassador League’s top title contenders and hand Linfield Christian its first loss of the season.
“I thought it was over a few times before it actually was,” Johnson said. “I thought my kids played extremely well tonight and they earned a big win.”
Keishmer Foster scored seven of his team-high 20 points in overtime, and his assist to James Otieno helped Aquinas take a 60-53 lead with 1:47 remaining on the clock. Linfield Christian (19-1, 1-1 in league) answered back, as Michael McNair and Shepard Cope knocked down 3-pointers about 45 seconds apart to get the Lions back within a point with 50 seconds to play.
Aquinas (13-7, 1-0) turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions, but Linfield Christian was unable to take advantage after a pair of 3-pointers drew iron. Then came one of the most unusual sequence of events with three seconds remaining on the clock.
Linfield Christian stole a long inbounds pass and immediately called its final timeout, so only one second ticked off of the clock. Confusion led to the Lions turning the ball over without the clock running, but Aquinas gave the ball right back when a player was called for a offensive foul. Linfield Christian had another chance but had to go the length of the floor. The inbounds pass aimed for McNair near midcourt was off-target, and the ball landed in the hands of Aquinas guard Churchill Ikenador as the final two seconds ran off.
Tuesday evening marked the sixth time in seven seasons Aquinas has prevailed at home in this intense rivalry series.
“We were coming off some tough tournaments where we did not do too well, so getting this win is a big deal for us,” said Ikenador, who finished with 18 points while leading the defensive effort for the Falcons. “We didn’t want them to win on our turf.”
Aquinas was able to withstand another great performance by McNair, who had a game-high 30 points for Linfield Christian.
Aquinas pieced together a 17-4 run to take control of the game in the first half, and the Falcons still hled a double-digit lead with 1:32 remaining in the second quarter. Linfield Christian scored the final five points of the first half and began the second half with a 10-1 run to take a 35-32 lead. McNair and Cope scored six points apiece during that run to get the Lions back in the game.
Ikenador drained a 3-pointer during the final seconds of the third period to give Aquinas a 42-41 advantage, but the lead changed hands a few times in the fourth quarter. Julius Browner and McNair scored on back-to-back possessions to help put Linfield Christian up 51-47, but Ikenador and Foster combined to sink four free throws to get Aquinas back on level terms.
Both teams had a chance to take a lead during the final 20 seconds of regulation, but shots were blocked at both ends of the court.
Linfield Christian likes to play at a very fast pace, but Aquinas slowed things down and kept the contest a half-court game much of the evening.
“We kept the intensity on defense, rebounded the ball well and just followed the game plan from start to finish,” Foster said.
Linfield Christian had open looks throughout the game, but the Lions only knocked down 6 of 23 shots from behind the arc.
“That’s not going to get the job done, especially on the road,” Lions coach Waheed Mitchell said. “If we’re not hitting those shots and making the other team take the ball out of the net, we can’t dictate the pace of the game the way we want to.”
Cope scored all 11 of his points after halftime, and Browner added nine points for Linfield Christian.
McNair and Foster each pulled down eight rebounds to lead their respective squads.