HERSHEY — With 11.3 seconds left in the overtime, Central York senior Jared Wagner knew that the ball and his team's district fate was going to be in his hands.
When he drove to the hole, he was instantly greeted by a sea of Spring Grove defenders. All he could do was throw up an off-balanced shot attempt. Too strong, the ball ricocheted off the backboard.
As the ball started back down, the first one to meet it was Wagner, this time, sending his put back through the net.
The buzzer beater sent Wagner and the Panthers into a spasms of euphoria. They immediately sprinted into their student section to celebrate. The scoreboard at the Giant Center read: Central York 52, Spring Grove 51.
“We ran a play to get the ball in and I saw a little bit of a hole and I took two or three dribbles and shot a little floater,” Wagner said. “I shot it a little bit too hard and I kind of just jumped back, got off my feet as quick as I could.”
There was little question that No. 1 seed Central (23-3) and the fourth-seeded Rockets (24-3) were going to give the 4,426 fans in attendance at the Giant Center a show in the District 3-AAAA semifinal. In their three prior meetings this season, all they did was play to an even 142-142 scoreline, with the Panthers owning two of the three wins.
However, Spring Grove got the biggest of the three before Tuesday, winning the York-Adams League title less than two weeks ago.
Now, Central can reclaim bragging rights.
The victory, and berth into Saturday's District 3-AAAA championship game, didn't come without hardship for the Panthers. Entering the fourth quarter, they held an eight-point advantage. But, held to just one point in the frame and playing most of it without Wagner, who was sitting with four fouls, Central saw Spring Grove chip away at the lead. The Panthers then held their collective breath when Grant Wierman's open 3-point look just clanked long. Wagner had a shot to win it at the buzzer in the regulation, but his shot hit off the front rim and sent the game into overtime at 47-47.
“We knew going into the fourth that the eight-point lead wasn't going to stay,” Panthers' head coach Kevin Schieler said. “I was hoping we would score a little more than that in the fourth, but we knew it was going to be a one-possession game. It always is.”
In overtime, it was the Rockets who struck first, thanks to a Darin Gordon layup. But, that was immediately answered by a Tommy O'Neill 3-pointer — his one and only shot of the night — to reclaim a 50-49 advantage.
Gordon responded with another layup with under 15 seconds to play in OT to put Spring Grove back ahead, 51-50. That set up Wagner for his heroics, and the ultimate disappointment for the Rockets.
While the win doesn't completely erase the sour taste left in Central's mouths from losing to Spring Grove in the league championship game, it was a nice way to respond after losing to the Rockets just 10 days ago.
“You can't take away their gold medal,” Schieler said. “And they deserved it. They were the best team in our league this year. It's nice to get a win against a team that you lost to earlier in the year, but I don't think it changes that. To their credit, they have that gold medal and they'll always have that. We can't take that away. But, we are glad that we are going to be competing for a district championship.”
The Panthers led by four after the first quarter and then took a slim two-point advantage into the halftime break. Just before halftime, Wagner got his memorable night started by recording his 1,000th career point on a 3-pointer that gave Central its 31-29 advantage at the break.
“I didn't care if I got it tonight, or Saturday, the next game,” Wagner said about his 1,000th point. “I just wanted to win this game.”
The third quarter was all about the Panthers. They pushed their lead to eight, thanks to an 8-2 run to open the quarter and a 7-2 run to close it. But the fourth period was a bit of deja vu for them. They saw a sizable margin diminish quickly, just as in the Y-A League championship game.
Only this time, they came out on the right side of the final.
Wagner led all scorers with 23 points, with 18 of them coming in the first half. He was the only player on Central to reach double figures.
Meanwhile, the Rockets were led by Eli Brooks' team-high 22 points, followed by Gordon's 19.
Saturday, when the Panthers take the court against No. 2 Reading in the final at 1 p.m. at the Giant Center, it'll be the first time the program plays in the district final since its only other appearance in 1984.
“I'm so happy for this group of boys,” Schieler said. “They're such a tight-knit group and I think we flew so far under the radar in the preseason, and to have us here, at this level, makes me so happy for them.”
Reading (24-3) reached the district title game with a 71-44 win over No. 14 Wilson.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org.