Centennial was down one point and its two best players, and Independence was close to the one victory it wanted most.
Then Preston Green scored on a putback with 6 seconds left, and freshman Alec Check blocked Isaac Clark's layup at the buzzer to preserve Centennial's thrilling 69-68 victory at home Tuesday over Independence.
"Preston had a great putback, and we were hyped," Check said. "Then I just saw D.J. (Reed) running up the court and pass to Isaac, and I just made the play. It was instinct."
It was also a brilliant coming-out party for the freshman, who scored 19 points and came up with several big plays after his senior brother, Derek, had fouled out with 4:39 remaining.
"Aleczander grew up tonight," Centennial coach Hernan Santiago said. "A few games ago, he just wasn't being very assertive, and I ... told him, 'The next step is the bench for you.' He was on the verge of being benched."
Instead, he was beating his brother's old team while Derek, Centennial's best player and one of its two seniors, had to sit out. Derek Check, along with Malcolm Johnson (who also fouled out late) and Brandon Robinson, all transferred from Independence to Centennial over the summer.
"This game didn't really mean anything extra to me until my brother fouled out," Alec Check said. "When that happened, I told him, 'I'll win it for you.'"
It wasn't easy. Independence (9-8, 1-2 Southwest Yosemite League) used an 11-0 run in the first half to take a 31-23 lead at the break, and the Falcons led until a Centennial (16-4, 3-0) unleashed a barrage of four 3-pointers, the first an Alec Check trey just before the third-quarter buzzer. Derek Check, who finished with 15 points, hit one to start the fourth quarter, and Green, who scored 13, followed with back-to-back 3s.
Before that point, the Golden Hawks hadn't hit a 3-pointer. But suddenly a five-point deficit was a 50-43 lead.
"Hey, part of the game is missed shots," Santiago said. "You've got to keep playing together and playing tough."
Independence answered with a 10-2 run to retake the lead, and then the game went back and forth, with eight lead changes in the final five minutes.
Clark tied the game at 62 with a pull-up jumper at the 2:00 mark, but Alec Check answered with a drive. Then Ojong Ntui hit a 3-pointer to give Independence a 65-64 lead before Green answered with his third 3 of the quarter. Reed's three-point play gave Independence one last lead at 68-67 and fouled out Johnson with 26 seconds left, setting up the wild final sequence, when Green followed Robinson's missed jumper and Alec Check saved the day at the other end.
"Our team is clutch," said Alec Check, who watched his brother hit a game-winning layup at the buzzer Friday at Stockdale. "We have guys who try hard and make it happen."
Clark scored 14 points with 6 assists, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks for Independence, but all he could think about was the blocked layup that cost the defending champions a chance to beat three old teammates.
"We wanted it bad," Clark said. "We just wanted to show them that Independence can still be that dominant team. We just came up short. I had no idea Alec was there. It was a clean block. I just tried to put it up as fast as I could, and he was right behind me."
Ntui led the Falcons with 15 points, Reed scored 14 and Ryan Robinson added 12.
"I think we'll be OK," Clark said. "It's not like we're getting blown out; we're competitive. We've just got to get it together, and we'll be fine."
Johnson finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds for the Golden Hawks, who remained unbeaten in SWYL play despite back-to-back close calls.
"You've got to be good to be lucky," Santiago said. "I'm sure there's some luck involved -- I mean, how many times would Clark hit that shot at the end? Almost every time. It's part luck, but it's easy to quit, too, and our guys kept hustling. When our guys went out tonight, all of our other guys stepped up. And if Alec doesn't hustle there at the end, he doesn't get it."