SUWANEE — The calendar may read November, but Grayson’s game against Milton in the finale of Monday’s action at the 2019 Jared Cook Classic had more of a feel of February or March.
The No. 1 (Class AAAAAAA) state-ranked Rams got everything they wanted for from the sixth-ranked Eagles, and then some.
Fortunately for them, senior Deivon Smith simply wasn’t going to allow them to lose and came up with the game-winning free throw with only five-tenths of a second left to help Grayson outduel Bruce Thornton and Milton 81-80 at North Gwinnett High School.
The Mississippi State-signed four-star point guard finished with 29 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals, which was enough production to counter Milton’s own four-star prospect in the sophomore Thornton, who poured in a game-high 42 points.
“Bruce is a really good player,” Smith said. “He had a really good game and is very competitive. I feel like my experience came in (handy Monday). Four years playing (against) other good point guards got me ready for the moment, … so I was ready for it.
“Everybody’s going to give us their best shot, whoever they are. So we’ve got to stop looking (ahead) and focus on what’s in front of us and take everybody for what they are.”
Thornton and his Milton (1-1) teammates demonstrated they would be a handful from the opening tip and throughout a back-and-forth first quarter that ended on a 9-0 run, capped by a four-point play by Thornton with three seconds left and left the Eagles with a 25-18 lead.
Grayson (3-0) would spend most of the rest of the night trying to climb out of that hole, trailing as much nine points in the second quarter before Milton went into halftime with a 45-38 lead.
The Eagles then matched their biggest lead when Devin Farrell’s layup with 3:53 left in the third quarter left the score at 55-46.
And when Kanaan Carlyle drove down the right wing for a basket 33 seconds into the fourth quarter, Milton had Grayson on the ropes with a 70-62 lead.
But Smith and the Rams demonstrated they weren’t about to quit, with the 5-foot-11 senior coming up with a steal and a dunk at the 5:55 mark of the final frame.
That play, along with Grayson switching its defense into a full-court trap began to put the pressure on Milton and ignited a 10-0 run, which Toneari Lane capped by draining a 3-pointer from the right wing that gave the Rams their first lead since the 2:31 mark of the first quarter at 72-70 with 4:41 remaining.
“We never really panicked,” Grayson coach Geoffrey Pierce said. “(Milton) came out and shot the ball well (Monday) night, but Deivon stepped up. … I was proud of the fact that we didn’t panic. We were able to get where we wanted to out of timeouts and things of that nature. (The players) were able to stay locked in even though the odd weren’t in their favor. … They definitely didn’t want to lose. They gutted it out.”
From that point, it was a case of each team seemingly telling the other, “Try to top this.”
Thornton did most of the heavy lifting for Milton down the stretch, scoring six straight points over a 1:58 span that vaulted the Eagles from three points down into a 78-75 lead with 1:01 remaining.
After Caleb Murphy pulled Grayson to within 78-77 with a pair of free throws with 55 seconds left, Deivon Smith looked like he had given the Rams the lead again after being sprung on a fast break by Josh Smith, who had come up with a steal, and bringing down the house with a thunderous dunk with 45 seconds left, only to have the basket was negated when Smith was whistled for traveling.
Undeterred, Grayson got another chance when a Milton pass sailed out of bounds for a turnover with 35.3 seconds left on the clock.
This time, Devion Smith’s footwork was true, and he got to the basket for a layup, and completed a three-point play after being fouled with a free throw that left the Rams up 80-78 with 24.6 seconds left.
Thornton still wasn’t about to let Milton fold, and answered by drawing a foul and making both free throws with 16 seconds left to re-tie the game at 80-all, and setting up the last sequence of events.
With seemingly everyone in the gym knowing Deivon Smith was going to attack the rim, the senior obliged by driving down the left wing into the lane, only to have his shot bothered by a double team and bounce off the rim.
But the rebound came right back to Smith, who followed his shot and tried for a stickback, which was also off the mark.
However, his hustle drew a foul from Thornton with the clock reading 0:00.5, and Smith stepped to the line and knocked down the first free throw.
And even though he missed the second, Milton had little time to try to answer, and their last-ditch, three-quarter-court shot was well short, and Grayson had escaped with the win.
Murphy joined Deivon Smith in double-figure scoring with 11 points, while Lane and Ian Schieffelin added 10 points each, and Taje Kelly chipped in six points and five rebounds off the bench for the Rams.
Carlyle finished with 11 points to aide Thornton’s effort for Milton, while Farrell and Evan Hurst added 10 points apiece.