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With four seconds left on the clock, CBC point guard Ryan Johnson took an inbounds pass and headed, with a purposeful aggression, into an attacking full-court sprint. Unable to shed Vashon defender Joel Shelton -- ironically enough, the cousin of his girlfriend -- Johnson darted toward center court, veering sharply right; his defender stayed on his shoulder and then leaned into him, hard, just as time was expiring.
Pressured, off balance and facing the basket awkwardly, Johnson jumped, and his buzzer-beating shot -- a three-pointer that, if successful, would have put the CBC Cadets into the state's Final Four -- clanged off the rim, ensuring a 51-50 win for the Vashon Wolverines. The game was a hotly contested match that teetered on the brink of pandemonium -- not so much on the court, where teenage kids were living a moment that they'll replay in their minds a million times, but in the packed stands, where the Vashon faithful erupted into bedlam and CBC's fans fell into a stunned silence.
Crumpling to the floor, Johnson lay prone as "V-Side" fans took to the court. His teammates, now in various states of distress after prematurely celebrating an improbable comeback in the quarterfinal matchup, surrounded him. Sophomore center Tamarr Maclin was the most visibly upset of the Cadets, but he wasn't alone in crying. CBC head coach Bob McCormack, livid that a foul wasn't called on Shelton, quickly turned ashen, the brutal, sudden finality settling on him.
As Johnson, who had rallied his team throughout the second half, walked toward the locker room, the energy in the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Mark Twain Center was still at a fever pitch. A handful of Vashon fans taunted him in the corner of the gym where his mother and family stood. Jawing back, Johnson was quickly pulled away, the moment, fortunately, passing in a flash.
Nearly 15 minutes later, the contrast outside the UM-St. Louis locker rooms couldn't have been more severe. A couple of CBC staffers stood outside, watching as red-eyed players and team managers made their way out of the building, either crying or staring vacantly. In the same hallway, a small army of Vashon family members, media sympathizers and assorted sycophants glad-handed one another, loudly reminding anyone within earshot that it was "their" team, not CBC, that was headed to Columbia. Winning in boys' basketball is a tradition at Vashon. Winning and letting people know about it seems a tradition, too.
Inside the CBC locker room, only six people were left: coaches McCormack and Kevin Grawer, managers Rich and Jeff Kemper, and senior starters Ryan Johnson and D.J. Hogue. At the beginning of the season, the two players were heralded as potentially the best backcourt in the state, and they clearly formed the nucleus of a young team that included eight sophomores over the course of the year. Now, disconsolate, the pair sat numb and drained -- physically, mentally, emotionally.
McCormack, leaving the room, told them, "You guys were the warriors tonight. You set the path; you are going to carry it on for these guys. You've got nothing to be ashamed of -- we were the better team tonight. It's nothing but a loss." But the breaks in his voice suggested something far different. After the team's stirring playoff wins over University City, Webster and Lindbergh, this was definitely more than just another loss.
Throughout the season, especially in the days leading up to the game, Johnson and Hogue talked about their "mission" to win the state title, which the school did just two years ago, with Johnson, only a sophomore, manning the point.
Nearby, Grawer said quietly, "It was gutsy performance. They played with so much heart in the second half. When you're playing with your heart, it's hard. I'm so happy with the team. They surpassed expectations. Vashon hit their shots, so you give them credit."
Johnson, slowly coming around, noted that in the final seconds, "I was trying to get to the basket as quickly as I could. I thought they'd call a foul, but with time running out, it was too close to call."
As for the atmosphere in the gym during the game, which was treated more as a holy war than a high-school basketball game by many, Johnson said, "I knew it was going to be like that from the first day."
Hogue, still clearly rattled, indicated that the last moments were a nightmarish blur, CBC grabbing the lead after a protracted comeback only to see Vashon snatch it away with five points in the last 30 seconds, with explosive sophomore Jesse Akins serving as the game-ending catalyst. "We were so hyped, so happy," Hogue said. "Coach told us we were better. I know we were better, but there's nothing you can say or do. It's over."
For some of CBC's players, that may be true. But for Johnson and Hogue, CBC's roller-coaster 20-9 season is neither the beginning nor the end but part of a long, intricate, ever-changing process as they move toward the elusive "next level": an athletic scholarship at an NCAA Division I university.