UPPER DARBY — At each timeout down the stretch of the fourth quarter Friday, the mood of Marple Newtown’s huddle was less strategic and more consolatory.
For three minutes, the Tigers had their chances to put away Upper Darby, to salt away a four-point game near the rim and at the free throw line. Instead, they left the door open for the Royals to strike back.
But in doing so, the Tigers also provided a chance to display their resilience in crunch time.
After squandering the lead with 30 seconds left, Nick Giordano fired a pass to a backdoor-cutting Jake McGee for a layup with four seconds left, and the Tigers survived Quadir Turner’s running heave from 3-point land to capture a pivotal 53-52 Central League win.
The final minute begged for someone to take control, and it wasn’t until the clock showed four seconds that the senior duo of Giordano and McGee finally did.
“I just immediately ran under the rim,’ McGee said. “Nick always finds me under there somehow. Cut to the back of the rim, had my hands up, he saw me and hit me with the pass. I did the easy part; I just had to put it in after that.’
That bucket meant McGee’s redemption story ultimately won the day. The senior finished with 13 points and a team-high nine rebounds. But he didn’t have the best of shooting days, including 2-for-10 in a helter-skelter first half. He also bricked two free throws in the final minute of regulation in a 1-for-6 day from the charity stripe.
Within moments of that empty possession, Upper Darby turned a 51-47 deficit into a 52-51 lead thanks to a 3-pointer from Turner and a Turner steal to find Juwan May-Craddle wide open for a lay-in all within the blink of an eye with 28.2 ticks left.
Through the adversity, Marple’s senior axis of Giordano, McGee and Matt Hahn knew it fell to them; the mantra on the bench went that however much time was left on the clock, it would be enough. That applied with 18.4 seconds left, after the Tigers missed three looks at the hoop, one by McGee blocked by Turner and two rushed efforts by Giordano in the paint. It held with 13.8 seconds left, when Eliot Bruce saw two free throws rim out and Austin Fullington cleaned up the glass to start the Tigers’ decisive final possession. And it held as Marple did just enough to slow the ball in Turner’s hands as his running 3-pointer clanged off the iron and out.
“You’ve just got to stay positive,’ McGee said. “The game’s not over until it’s over. There’s still 13 seconds on the clock. Anything can happen. You can’t think you lost because you missed free throws. I missed those two free throws that easily could’ve lost the game. I just thought, there has to be something I can do to bounce back from it.’
The final sequence illustrated the other driving force for Marple (11-9, 8-6), Giordano’s ability to do it all. He scored 21 points, though just two in the fourth quarter. He added six rebounds, seven steals and five assists … and the requisite humility in the final seconds to know that what was best for the team didn’t necessarily involve him forcing a look that wasn’t there.
“It’s not really a tough decision,’ Giordano said. “I wanted to break my man down and create anything we could get, the best shot possible for the team. Jake was the best shot, so I gave it to him.’
Before UD’s 5-0 spurt, the role of hero looked to be filled by Fullington. Despite missing a couple of easy shots near the basket early the fourth quarter plus two free throws, Fullington converted a 3-point play with 1:10 left, another backdoor cut with McGee providing the laser of a pass, to put Marple up four.
But Upper Darby (10-10, 7-7) wasn’t done. Turner, who scored a game-high 25 points and carried the team in the second half while Kahleel Henry was confined to the bench after a heavy fall late in the second quarter, hit one of his six 3-pointers, then got into the passing lane to feed May-Craddle to briefly inch the Royals ahead.
“It felt great for the moment,’ Turner said. “If we had just kept up the intensity, like Coach (Bob) Miller said, all we had to do was play defense, play hard defense. … Discipline on defense.’
With the Royals unable to close out the game, Marple notched a crucial victory to get a leg up in a logjammed pack in the middle of the Central League and near the fringes of District One’s 32-team Class AAAA field.
Those heightened stakes made for an emotional Tigers locker room.
“We’ve been saying throughout the past few days that the next four games are the biggest games of the year to get to the playoffs,’ Giordano said. “I’ve never been to the playoffs my entire career, so I’m excited.’