For most of the season, the Runnin’ Indians have all too frequently found themselves on the wrong end of thrilling finishes.
As the fourth quarter closed with the game knotted at 38, the stage was set for another overtime heartbreak Friday night at home against Mansfield Summit in a virtual win-or-stay-home contest.
Only this time, Waxahachie held the final dagger and had a sophomore guard with the accuracy and steady hand to deliver.
CJ Noland inbounded the ball and quickly received the rock right back as the clock began to run with 11.7 seconds showing in overtime. The game was also once again tied, this time at 46.
He then raced across midcourt, only to be met by a Summit double-team a couple of feet outside of the three-point arc. The Jaguars nearly came away with the steal, too.
But Noland recovered, split the two defenders and pulled up from two steps above the free-throw line.
“When I shot it, I just thought, ‘Big-time players have to make big-time things, so you got to hit it,’” said Noland of what went through his mind just before releasing the contested game-winner. HIs made jumper pushed Waxahachie over Summit, 48-46, in a battle of two teams that entered Mike Turner Gymnasium tied for the final District 7-6A playoff spot.
“Coach [Greg Gober] just said it the best, but every time we lost in a close game we just kept getting closer and closer,” Noland continued, “so, eventually, we just knew we were going to put one together.”
For Gober, to see the shot finally fall in favor of the Tribe was “incredible.”
“I have seen so many not go in,” he continued. “The bottom line is, in crunch time, you have to put the ball in peoples hands that make those plays or that you trust to make those plays and they’ll grow up or they won’t. If they continue to talk about being tired or frustrated or fatigued, then they won’t ever make it.”
Gober recalled reassuring Noland during the third quarter that “it doesn’t matter how tired or frustrated you are, we have to finish.”
“And it just so happened that it was CJ at the end,” Gober said. He also pointed to the big-time wing three-pointer by JT Warren to tie the game at 46 with less than one minute to play in overtime as another example of a player stepping up late Friday.
Warren was also credited with the steal on the final Waxahachie full-court press just after his made three that ultimately set up the Nolan game-winner. The senior jumped in front of a Summit pass near the sideline, turned midair and tossed the ball back inbound. A Jaguar then grabbed the ball and fed it up the court to an outlet that was nowhere to be seen.
“The Mansfield game [on Tuesday] was the first indication that we could do because that was under all odds and we finally figured out a way to win a close one at the end," Gober said. "It just made such a difference."
He then explained that the change in the mindset of the players in the locker room hadn’t been a sudden switch, either. Waxahachie is, after all, 4-3 over its last seven 7-6A games and has dropped those three contests by a combined seven points.
The late charge to the postseason now has the Runnin' Indians tied with South Grand Prairie for third place at 7-6 in the district standings. The two are one game clear of now-fifth place Mansfield Summit with one game to play.
The Runnin' Indians and Warrior also meet at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Grand Prairie.
“We are getting better and our kids are believing in each other,” Gober added. “We are still making mistakes but we are believing in each other, and that is what it comes down to. We don’t point fingers at each other. Before, we were pretty good at pointing fingers.”
Noland finished the contest with a team-high 17 points and converted on 7-of-11 from the free throw line. He took eight of those free throws in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Warren was second on the team with 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting from behind the arc, while BJ Francis scored seven, Da’maraie Watkins had six, CJ McGruder chipped in five and KB Jackson finished with three.
Waxahachie returns to action with an opportunity to officially seal its playoff bid at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday on the road against South Grand Prairie.
The Warriors fell to No. 12 DeSoto on Friday, 75-43, meaning the winner between Waxahachie-South Grand Prairie on Tuesday night will finish the season third in District 7-6A.
The losing team Tuesday could fall into a tie with Mansfield Summit for the final playoff spot, which would require a play-in game Friday at a site and time to be determined.
“We need to come with the same intensity Tuesday that we did in the fourth quarter tonight,” Noland said. “We started off the game bad and lackadaisical. But, at the end, we pulled through, and that is what we need to do against [South Grand Prairie]. We are looking for revenge against them because they came here and took one from us.”
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith