RIVERSIDE – The Aquinas High basketball team broke their huddle as the strains of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” filled the King High gymnasium.
“Take my hand, we'll make it, I swear
Livin' on a prayer.”
There were 10.2 seconds left and Aquinas trailed host King by one point in the CIF-Southern Section Division 3AA title game eventually won by Aquinas, 40-39.
Nick Hopkins inbounded to star senior guard Sheldon Grant who was closely guarded by King’s Alaon Saulet. Grant made a beeline for the bucket and took flight six feet from the hoop for a floater that
kissed softly off the glass and found net.
“I knew we were either going to win by me or lose by me,” Grant said. “I just figured I’ve been here four years and I’ve been practicing that shot my whole life, and I’m just happy it went down this time and we got the W.”
Aquinas fans went bonkers. Grant and teammate Keishmer Charles chest-bumped. But there were still four seconds left.
Following a time out, King’s George Alapag (10 points) had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but his 3-point heave bounced harmlessly off the rim and the celebration was on for Aquinas.
Soon Aquinas coach David Johnson was holding the championship plaque aloft, a shirtless Falcon football player was performing the Haka (a ceremonial dance) and the Falcons were grinning for team photos.
The victory was the 14th consecutive for Aquinas (20-1). It was sweet redemption for the Falcons who lost by 15 to Altadena Renaissance Academy last season in the Division 4AA title game.
Nobody was happier than Grant, the slender senior from Fontana who went scoreless in the first half, only to rally and lead everyone with 16 points, including sinking the game-winner.
“I knew when Sheldon had the lane that he was going to make it,” said Aquinas forward Nick Hopkins who scored 13 points. “I’ve known him since he was a little kid and when he got that close, I knew it was going in.”
King coach Jeff Dietz, who tried in vain to nab the school’s fourth section title, kept it classy afterward.
“We wanted to keep [Grant] going left, but we couldn’t get on his left side,” Dietz said. “He runs and makes that floater – good for him. What a life memory that is for him. I’m happy for him, sad for us.”
The section title was Aquinas’ first since 1973, when the school was less than 20 years old.
“This is like a dream come true,” Johnson said. “It’s just exciting. I’m happy for the Aquinas community.”
Hopkins scored nine first-quarter points as Aquinas seized an 11-8 lead after eight minutes. But a 3-pointer by King’s Nick Palaskis gave the Wolves their first lead, 13-11, early in the second quarter. King led 21-16 at halftime.
The Wolves (11-7) still led by five with 1:49 left in the third quarter when Hopkins went over the back of a King player on a rebound attempt and picked up his fourth foul.
Hopkins was one foul from disqualification and fell to the hardwood in pain twice in the fourth quarter, but Johnson did not dare remove him.
“He just said, ‘I’m not coming out of the game.’” Johnson said. “I was tempted to take him out, but I just decided to ride with him. He’s one of my go-to guys.”
King threatened to pull away in the final quarter, but 3-pointers by Hopkins and Vugar Kuliev kept Aquinas close.
Grant’s floater with 34 seconds left toppled in to bring Aquinas to within 39-38.
King tried to use as much clock as possible until the Falcons fouled Jaden Winfield (10 points) with 15.8 seconds left. But Winfield missed the front end of a one-and-one to give Aquinas one last shot – which, of course, found the mark.
It was quite the final two weeks for Grant who graduated with Hopkins, Kuliev and Abercrombie on May 29, then celebrated a section title 11 days later.
“I was just telling my teammate, Rodarial Abercrombie, this is something you dream about,” Grant said. “It comes down to the last shot for the championship and it comes to me, and I’m able to deliver for my team.”