AURORA – The Aurora Christian boys basketball team had seen the ending way too many times.
The Eagles, entering their game against St. Francis winless in the Suburban Christian Conference Blue Division, watched leads slip away in many of their early-season losses.
Aurora Christian looked like it was headed for the same fate again against the conference-leading Spartans.
Trailing 53-51 with 12 seconds to go and the ball, Aurora Christian’s Johnathan Harrell fought through a pair of screens, slipped to the left corner and hit a 3-pointer as time expired to provide the Eagles their first conference win with a 54-53 victory.
A beaming Harrell, who finished with 14 points, said the play was for him to shoot a 3-pointer all along, but it didn’t play out exactly how coach Pat McNamara drew it up.
“We drew it up that I would get the first pass but it didn’t exactly work out that way,” Harrell said. “I just faded back to the corner and got the pass and I just knew it was going in. I was practicing corner shots for the whole entire warm-ups knowing I might get one.”
Harrell’s desperation winner was almost for naught as St. Francis (14-3, 6-2) could have put the game away at the free-throw line.
Both Tim Zettinger and Jason Pisarski had a chance to put the Spartans up by two possessions with less than 30 seconds to go.
Cory Windle’s 3-pointer with 19.8 to go pulled Aurora Christian (11-9, 1-6) within 52-51 before Pisarski split at the line with 12.8 seconds to go.
Out of a timeout, Ryan Suttle found Zach Singer near the top of the key. Singer lofted a pass to Harrell in the corner, and without hesitation, Harrell rose up over Andrew Kimball to hit the game-winning shot.
“We had unbelievable shots down the stretch; Windle hit a big three and then Jonathan hit an unbelievable shot,” McNamara said. “It was great for our guys. We’ve lost some close games, we were just fortunate that shot went in. He [Harrell] had it, he looked very confident out there. That’s who we wanted to get the ball too.”
After racing out to a big lead in the first half, Aurora Christian watched as St. Francis began to chip away early in the third quarter.
The Eagles were able to limit St. Francis 3-point ace Kimball for much of the game until the senior caught fire in the fourth quarter. Kimball turned a 41-37 deficit into a 46-41 lead after knocking down three 3-pointers on consecutive Spartans’ possessions.
The game looked lost for Aurora Christian – as it had so many times during the season – after Windle missed a point-blank lay-up with 50 seconds to go. But the Eagles hung around as Singer hit a jumper and Windle knocked down a 3-pointer to set up Harrell’s game-winner.
“They are a good team, they have five kids that can play,” St. Francis coach Bob Ward said. “For two years, I’ve liked their kids. I give them credit, but I give our kids credit too, they showed a lot of character. Things weren’t going real easy for them but they came back.”
The Spartans came back and nearly won the game after a slow start after trailing by double-digits early. Aurora Christian was able to limit Kimball’s touches until the fourth quarter. In all, Kimball hit 5 of 6 3-pointers for a team-high 18 points.
Suttle (14 points), Windle (12) and Harrell were all in double figures for the Eagles.