COLUMBUS - If the basketball gods dealt in compassion, they might have allowed Libbey to replay the final 5.1 seconds of yesterday's Division II state boys basketball championship at Value City Arena.
Not simply because the Cowboys lost in the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable - 70-69 in overtime to Chillicothe on Ray Chambers' game-winning, buzzer-beating layup that rolled around the rim before going through. But because the ghosts of Libbey's hard-luck past in Columbus had already plunged some pretty sharp daggers into the hearts of the school's past players.
There was the 15-point fourth-quarter lead that somehow disappeared in a 55-52 Class AA final loss to Dayton Chaminade in 1966. There was the last-second put-back attempt that rolled around and then fell out in a 64-63 semifinal loss to powerhouse Columbus East in 1969.
And then there was yesterday, a game in which those basketball gods deemed it was necessary to hand the 2008 Libbey Cowboys a little bit of both of those demoralizing closing scenarios.
This time the fourth-ranked Cowboys of coach Leroy Bates played well enough to lead by 16 points in the third quarter, only to see that margin erased in the haze of lightning-quick Cavaliers point guard Anthony Hitchens.
"Some things are meant to be and some things are not," Bates said. "We knew one team would lose today. It just so happened it was us. You can prepare for every occasion but, as a coach, you never prepare for the loss. But that's the reality of coaching, so we've just got to live with it."
But this time Libbey (24-3) would do something about that collapse, forcing overtime when 6-5 senior guard Lance Jones (10 points) hit a clutch 14-foot jumper from the low left wing for a tie at 63 with three seconds left in regulation. That shot came off of a loose ball after Libbey seemed to have botched a potential game-tying play.
And then there was 6-6 senior forward Julius Wells (13 points, 12 rebounds) answering the call to calmly swish two free throws for a 69-68 Libbey lead with just those 5.1 seconds to kill off, and thus kill off all those hard-luck demons of the past.
"I've been shooting about 150 free throws a day, so I wasn't worried about the free throws," Wells said. "I had the confidence I was going to make the free throws."
That five seconds was plenty of time for Hitchens (24 points, 8 assists) to streak with the dribble up the left sideline and toward the lane as the tension among the crowd of 14,498 mounted.
With the Cowboy defense left in his wake and only Wells waiting to greet him near the top of the key, Hitchens made the decision of a lifetime for himself and the folks of Chillicothe, who had never been to a final four before this year.
"We wanted to take the ball out of Hitchens' hands," Bates said. "That's why we trapped him. But they screened and we were forced to chase him. He kept the ball and broke down the rest of the defense. That left the rest of the guys out of position. That's what led to the bounce pass to Chambers. On two-on-one breaks, the offense usually wins.
"Anytime you go into an overtime game, you have to have a greater focus than your opponent to pull it out. I think the last play was kind of indicative of that we were just a little bit out of sync at the end."
Hitchens sent a nifty bounce pass to the 6-7 Chambers, who was actually startled by the pass.
"I really didn't think he got it off in time, but I saw he was open so I passed it and he made it," Hitchens said. "Thank the Lord.
"Coach told me in the huddle that I had time to get all the way to the lane. I really was going to pull up for like a little floater or something, but [Wells] committed to me, so I did a nice little bounce pass and Ray finished."
Chambers (23 points, 8 rebounds) gathered himself and awkwardly laid the ball up from the left block and then waited to see if he was going to be the goat or the hero.
As the ball rolled around the rim with the buzzer sounding, he thought he might be the former. To his joy, he was the latter.
"It was crazy," Chambers said of the winning play. "I just kind of threw it up there and it happened to go in. I thought I missed it though. I thought it was going to fall out. I was scared. I was like, 'No, no!' Then, when it went in, I just started jumping everywhere.
"I was shocked he passed it to me. I thought he was going to pull up and save the day. But he's a smart point guard and I love him."
The loss spoiled the prep finale of Libbey's greatest player ever and one of the best basketball players in City League history. William Buford - the 6-5 senior who on Wednesday was named Ohio's Mr. Basketball and who will play on this court next year for Ohio State University - had 29 points (13-of-25 shooting), six rebounds and five assists in his high school swan song.
Alas, it was not enough.
"We got too comfortable and they were knocking down shots, and we didn't stay aggressive on defense like we were at the beginning," Buford said.
With 5:50 left in the third quarter, what Buford and his teammates were doing seemed like enough. That's when Brad Burton's two free throws gave the Cowboys a seemingly commanding 42-26 lead.
"When we got down 16 we knew that we were not playing very good offensively or defensively," Chillicothe coach Gary Kellough said. "So, it was a matter of us getting our game going.
"They're a great basketball team, and we were real blessed that when we got down 16 we made some plays. I thought our pressure got them going a little bit and it got us energized."
"They made adjustments at halftime in which they were more aggressive offensively," Bates said. "They stayed aggressive. We got away from them for a little while, but, just like bloodhounds tracking rabbits, they came back and caught us. That's the way the game was. Then it was nip-and-tuck from that point on."
With Hitchens and Chambers combining for 16 third-quarter points and Libbey helping out with six of its 15 turnovers in that period, Chillicothe (25-2), which had trailed 33-24 at halftime, trimmed the Cowboys' cushion down to 51-47 entering the fourth quarter.
After having not led since 7-4 midway in the first quarter, the now momentum-driven Cavaliers took their next lead at 57-56 on Hitchens' 12-footer with 2:48 left in regulation. They would eventually go up 62-58 on two Chambers free throws with 45.8 seconds to play before Libbey rallied to force the OT on Jones' clutch jumper.
Libbey was down 68-65 in OT before Buford drove from the left wing for a bucket with 1:58 left and, after Hitchens was called for charging at the 23.1-second mark, Wells became the Cowboys' "temporary" hero.
Libbey was 27-of-54 (50 percent) from the field, 12-of-17 (71 percent) from the line, and matched Chillicothe's 34 rebounds. The Cavaliers were 23-of-57 (40 percent) from the field, 19-of-27 (70 percent) from the line, and committed just 10 turnovers.
Senior guard Brad Sandridge added 11 points and seven boards for the Cowboys.
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