BOSTON -- No way, no how was Malik James going to let his team go down without a fight. Even if that meant taking the risk of performing in crunch time with four fouls.
The Brighton guard had picked up that foul with 15 seconds remaining in the third quarter and went to the bench. Meanwhile, Scituate was in the process of trying to blow the game open, continuing a big run at the start of the fourth quarter that saw them take what seemed like a commanding, 47-36 lead.
After spending most of his time on the bench demanding to be put back in, James came back on the floor and promptly made his mark with a bucket on a putback with 4:37 remaining. The junior took control of the game from that point on, scoring 14 of his 21 points over those final minutes as the Bengals roared back to life with a 14-3 run, capped by a Daivon Edwards 3-pointer and a James free throw which tied the game at 50-50 with 1:13 left to play.
The Sailors next, and last, points came on a pair of David Cox foul shots, but James wasn't done yet. He calmly sank two free throws with 8.4 seconds on the clock, then knocked the ball loose as Scituate tried to come upcourt. The ball landed in the hands of Bengals teammate Nate Hogan, who quickly sent it right back to James, who raced in for what would end up as the game-winning layup.
James was also fouled on the play, but he sank the freebie and Scituate's desperation heave fell way short, allowing Brighton to escape with a 55-52 victory in the Div. 2 state semifinals at TD Garden.
"I wasn’t supposed to be in the game but I told my coach to put me in because if we were going to lose, we were going to lose with me on the court,” James said, describing the final play. “At first there was confusion because coach was saying zone, but it was eight seconds so I was like, ‘What are we in?’ He finally said man and I had four (fouls) so he said don’t reach."
“I played defense on the baseline and I tried to turn the guard and actually he did turn," James went on. "He spun around and, not listening obviously, I reached and I got the steal this time, a deflection to my teammate who passed it for the outlet, and I finished.”
What got the Bengals (20-6) back in the game was a combination of a shift away from their beloved three-point shot and a collection of players doing the little things. Guards Edwards and Mark Mojica each contributed key steals in the run, while Nick Simpson (16 points) and Prince Unaegbu controlled the glass. Once James returned to the floor, Brighton began attacking the basket rather than settling for outside shots.
"I appreciate every little thing that the guys do," praised Brighton coach Hugh Coleman. "And it is about the little things. It's not if (James) scores 20 or someone hits five threes. It's the charges, the loose balls, the steals. Those are the little things that make the difference and you know what? It proved right today."
It was Simpson who did the bulk of the work in the first half, scoring ten of his points. Edwards (11 points) contributed a pair of 3-pointers and Mojica scored his four points in the second as the Bengals took a 27-21 lead.
Scituate (21-4) turned things around the third, holding Brighton to just six points while putting in 18 of its own with Noma Okundaye getting nine of 17 points in the frame to lead the charge. The Sailors caught and passed Brighton, taking a 39-33 lead into the fourth, which they extended to an 11-point lead before James sparked the comeback.
"We just did not take care of the ball at the end of that game. No one lost that game. We've won together, we've lost together. We lost our first game of the season by 25. All we did was work hard. All I've ever asked these people to do is sacrifice and give everything they have all the time. I've never had better practices, I've never had better people, I've never had a better experience."
A year ago, Brighton fell just short of its dream of bringing a state trophy back to the city for the first time in school history. This time, they hope to finish the job.
"The goal is absolutely to win it," Coleman stated emphatically. "From the jump, from practice starting tomorrow, everything we do - game film, game prep. Us coaches really like to give things to God. We feel like, if we do what we're asked to do in His eyes, He is going to give us what we deserve and what we're blessed with."