by Josh Akeman
If a single, explosive crowd reaction could actually rip the roof off a sports venue, then the McIntosh gym would have been reduced to a pile of sweaty dust Saturday night.
After smashing the game-winning dunk on a Gainesville defender’s head, Chase Walter calmly sank his extra free throw and held both arms extended to the rafters of that resilient roof. Moments later, when Gainesville’s desperation heave fell short, the big man collapsed to the floor like he’d just won Wimbledon, and the whole team swarmed him.
Like every McIntosh fan in the packed building, he was elated and exhausted by the end of a game that Coach Jason Eisele agreed was the most exciting he’d ever seen.
“It might have taken a few years off my life, but it was a real fun game to watch,” Eisele said of the 87-84 victory that sends his Chiefs to the Elite 8 for the first time in school history. “You love to see a guy like Chase be clutch for us at the end.”
Eisele credited Walter for having the energy to make a big play at the end. Early foul trouble had star big man Dishon Lowery on the bench for most of the second quarter. That cost McIntosh dearly on defense as Eisele had to sub in smaller defenders. As the only frontcourt player with real size, Walter had to anchor the defense for an extended stretch. It may have been an exhausting task, but all that matters is he had just enough left to absolutely smash home a two-handed dunk to win the game.
As elated as the Chiefs felt after the win, Gainesville’s players were deflated after losing such an intense game, one in which they led most of the way. Their star forward D’Marcus Simonds was unguardable in the game, as he repeatedly drove for fouls or incredible finishes, forcing McIntosh’s dynamic guard duo of Jordan Lyons and Will Washington to counterpunch with some amazing finishes of their own.
The long armed, super-athletic Gainesville forward looked near tears as he embraced Jordan Lyons after the game. Lyons and other players on the team know Simmons well from AAU basketball, and they comforted their friend after a game that neither team deserved to lose.
“D’Marcus Simonds, he’s a hell of a player. He’s real good friends with a lot of these guys,” Eisele said. “It’s hard to go in there and compete against one of your friends. This time of the season it’s tough to see anyone lose.”
For the second straight playoff game, McIntosh started with some sloppy play, hurting themselves by taking tough shots and turning the ball over. Gainesville quickly punished each mistake with a fastbreak layup. On top of that, Simonds was driving and making some unfair finishes around the basket, between barrages of three-pointers from Gainesville’s perimeter shooters.
Playing without Lowery made for a rough stretch defensively in the second quarter, but the team managed to go into the half down only nine points. They were helped by some incredibly tough play by Isaac Kellum, who battled under the basket for rebounds throughout what was a very physical game. He would later nail a crucial 3-pointer in the intense final minutes of the game.
“We really didn’t play our brand of basketball in the first half. We talked about that in halftime, but, even though we were down, it could have been a lot worse,” Eisele said. “And they knew. They understood, you know, this is a pretty veteran group. I’m really proud of the way they came together in that second half and played with each other. We just fought through a lot of adversity against a very, very good team.”
Point guard Will Washington was the steady hand that guided his team through that rough first half and then propelled them back into the game in the second. His lightning-quick first step and sticky hands on defense made for a great battle of number tens against Simond’s long-armed, athletic attack.
Early in the second half, Washington swiped the ball off of Gainesville’s point guard at half court and sailed in for a layup, prompting the first eruption of probably a dozen that the McIntosh crowd would have in the second half of the game. It felt like a statement from the Chiefs’ point guard: this half won’t be like the first.
And it wasn’t. Certain stretches of the second half were almost laughable for how quickly the incredible plays kept coming for both teams. Simonds would jet down the court, weave through two defenders, and slither around a third for a ridiculous finish. Three seconds later Lyons or Washington would be laying it in over two guys on the other end of the court. Then that happened again, and again, and again.
If the roof was actually going to rip off, it would have happened late in the third quarter when McIntosh finally took the lead on the following series of events: a massive Lowery block leading to a ridiculous Lyons pull-up three, punctuated by a Will Washington steal and two hand slam. Oh, and then Lowry threw a full court outlet to a streaking Washington who somehow tracked the ball down like he was Odell Beckham Jr. and laid it in for an And-1. That was how the Chiefs finally took the lead.
As if it could end any other way, the teams found themselves tied at 84, McIntosh inbounding for a final shot. They got the ball to their man, Will Washington, who penetrated, but had a layup attempt knocked away. That left them with five seconds left and Washington inbounding the ball on the baseline. They called the same baseline out-of-bounds play they’d used several times in the game. Each time Gainesville had done a good job of denying a pass to the big man under the basket. This time the result was different.
“We’d run that inbound play all game long and they had taken Chase away each and every time,” said Eisele. “They just slept for a second, and he flushed it.”
It was a game where the Chiefs leaned on their starting five with only those players scoring. Will Washington led the Chiefs in scoring with 31 points, adding 7 assists.
Jordan Lyons was right behind with 24 points. Dishon Lowery posted 13 points and 15 rebounds. Isaac Kellum finished with 12 points. Chase Walter’s 7 points were huge, especially the final three that won the game. He also added 7 rebounds.
With the thrilling victory, McIntosh advances to the Elite 8 where they will play Riverwood on the campus of Columbus State University Friday night.