Even without its best lineup, Bishop Gorman (Nev.) was the best team in the 2009 Beach Ball Classic.
The Gaels were missing two starters, including one of the nation's top sophomores, but made the key plays down the stretch and Columbia wilted in a 54-52 loss in the championship game Thursday. In the closest final since 1996, the teams traded the lead nine times and were tied nine others.
Columbia (Ga.) (11-4) won its first three games in the tournament by a combined 10 points, but the Eagles couldn't make the shots down the stretch to prevent the comeback this time. Gorman (10-1) led for only 50 seconds in the second half, but featured the tournament's most valuable and most clutch player.
Point guard Johnathan Loyd scored 17 points, but his biggest contribution was an assist on the go-ahead basket with 15 seconds left.
"I was just proud of the way that our guys adjusted during the course of the game," Gorman coach Grant Rice said. "Things were not going well offensively for us all night. ... At some point we just had to let Johnathan go."
Gorman didn't have a second-half lead until Loyd drained a 3-pointer with 3:32 left, giving the Gaels a 48-47 advantage. With the game tied at 50-all, there was little doubt the ball would be in Loyd's hands after Gorman called timeout with 48 seconds left.
The lightning quick point guard eluded defenders for almost 30 seconds - the original plan was to burn out the entire clock - before driving the lane when he saw an opening. When the defense collapsed on him, he dished to wide-open teammate Anson Winder, who gave the Gaels the lead for good on a layup with 15 seconds left.
"Every time we call a timeout I usually have the ball in my hands," Loyd said. "I knew they were going to try and double me or jump me. I knew they would swarm me. When I went up in the air, all the defense came to me and I kicked it out to Anson."
The Gaels, the reigning state champs in Nevada, used the exact same play in last year's state semifinals, so they had confidence that it would work.
"We've been together for a long time, so we know where each other are going to be on the court," said Winder, who has been Loyd's teammate since fifth grade. "I think he saw me and knew to come my way."
Even without super sophomore Shabazz Muhammad, who missed the tournament with a back injury, Gorman won four games in four days to clinch its first Beach Ball championship. The Gaels' average margin of victory was 16 points in the tournament.
Gorman was outrebounded 39-24 and shot just 9-for-27 (33 percent) in the second half, but turned 14 Columbia turnovers into 18 points. Still, the Eagles had opportunities to put the game away in the second half.
However, they were just 8-for-14 from the free throw line after the break. Gorman hit 8-of-10 second-half attempts.
"That has been our Achilles heel for awhile," Columbia coach Phillip McCrary said. "We needed to do a better job of shooting free throws down the final stretch of the game. Every time we'd go to the line we'd miss the front end or we'd miss the second.
"We also had some mental lapses on the defensive end. We didn't rotate the way we were supposed to. The kids played hard. We were always in the ball game. If we could have improved our free throw shooting, we could have pulled it out."
COLUMBIA (11-4): Cobb, Jershon 8-16 3-3 20; Shamsid-Deen, Tahj 3-5 1-4 8; Grier, Chris 3-5 1-2 7; Session, Darnelius 2-5 1-2 5; Daniels, Chris 2-6 0-0 4; Allen, Stephon 1-1 2-2 4; Reid, Jarmal 0-5 2-4 2; Mike, Sam 1-1 0-0 2; Tyson, A. Pierre' 0-2 0-0 0; Jones, Lorenzo 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-47 10-17 52.
BISHOP GORMAN (10-1): Loyd, Johnathan 5-9 4-8 17; Winder, Anson 6-13 2-2 15; Spencer, Taylor 4-14 2-3 11; Turner, Alex 0-1 4-4 4; Stanley, Ronnie 1-2 1-3 3; Allen, Rosco 1-3 0-0 2; Carter, Timmy 1-5 0-0 2; Brown, Johnny 0-0 0-0 0; Susa, Tanner 0-0 0-0 0; Parks, Ryan 0-0 0-0 0; Carter, Ben 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-47 13-20 54.
Halftime: Columbia 26-25. 3-Point Goals: Columbia 2-8 (Cobb, Jershon 1-4; Shamsid-Deen, Tahj 1-2; Grier, Chris 0-2), Bishop Gorman 5-17 (Loyd, Johnathan 3-6; Spencer, Taylor 1-6; Winder, Anson 1-4; Allen, Rosco 0-1). Fouled Out: Columbia -None, Bishop Gorman -None. Rebounds: Columbia 39 (Cobb, Jershon 9), Bishop Gorman 24 (Winder, Anson 7; Turner, Alex 7). Assists: Columbia 9 (Reid, Jarmal 4), Bishop Gorman 8 (Loyd, Johnathan 3; Winder, Anson 3). Total Fouls: Columbia 18, Bishop Gorman 16. Technical Fouls: Columbia None, Bishop Gorman None.
To view Hoke's CCU sports blog, "The Roost," go to TheSunNews.com.