Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 | 11:22 p.m.
Christian Popoola Jr. labeled it the worst he’s played in a high school basketball game. Well, until the final two minutes.
The Bishop Gorman High senior guard drained a 3-pointer with the Gaels trailing by eight points and just 1:25 remaining Friday in the 4A state championship game against Clark at Cox Pavilion.
What ensued will go down in local basketball lore.
Clark didn’t have any timeouts remaining and couldn’t get the ball up the court, and Popoola took advantage. He had three steals in the comeback to quickly give Gorman possession, helping it close on a 12-0 scoring run for an improbable 62-58 victory and sixth consecutive state championship.
“I couldn’t have played any worse, individually,” Popoola said. “But it ended up being the best victory for our team. My teammates trusted me until the end. This was a group effort — all about the team.”
McDonald’s All-American Chuck O’Bannon Jr. had a game-high 36 points, including a dunk off a steal with 16 seconds remaining to give Gorman the lead for good. If it weren’t for O’Bannon, who scored Gorman’s initial 15 points of the second half, the Gaels may have lost by double digits.
He went 6 of 10 on 3-pointers, repeatedly calling for the ball and draining high-arching shots. With each basket, fans in the packed arena got louder and louder — the 2,500-seat venue was so crowded, they turned people away at halftime.
Those in attendance were treated to an ending they soon won’t forget, especially with the unstoppable play of USC commit O’Bannon.
“Losing. That’s not an option for me,” O’Bannon said. “We knew we had a lot of time left.”
O’Bannon‘s performance clearly carried Gorman. But if weren’t for DJ Howe, a reserve guard and defensive specialist, the Gaels might have lost. Howe had two steals, grabbed an offensive rebound and made four free throws in the rally.
“He’s one of our best defensive guys, so when we put the press on we wanted him in there,” Gorman coach Grant Rice said. “He delivered. He came up with some big plays.”
This was the Gorman program’s 19th all-time championship, including 10 since 2002 when Rice took over as coach. You could easily argue this was the one season the Gaels were fortunate.
Clark, which earlier in the year was the first Nevada team since 2011 to beat Gorman, frustrated the Gaels with its zone defense. Trey Woodbury was solid in making 6 of 8 shots for 15 points, James Bridges had 14 points — including connecting on a wide open 3-pointer in the fourth quarter when it appeared Clark was pulling away — and Antwon Jackson had success in the post.
But Clark missed eight free throws, couldn’t break Gorman’s full-court press during the comeback and didn’t have an answer defensively for the hot-shooting O’Bannon.
In the final flurry, everything went right for Gorman and wrong for Clark.
“I really can’t explain it. We just didn’t quit,” Rice said.
Clark returns all five of its starters, including Woodbury and Bridges — two of Nevada’s top three returners in 2017-18. The other is Gorman’s Jamal Bey, setting the table for what should be another memorable playoff game next winter.
“We went back and forth so much this year with Clark,” Rice said. “With the players they have coming back, (the rivalry) is going to last for a few years.”