BAKERSFIELD – The poetic justice of the moment was almost indescribable. Vaughn Autry stood at the free-throw line with a chance to put the game out of reach. He had already blown one free throw on a night when his coach thought he got caught up in the emotion of it all.
“I saw my dad sitting in a chair to the left of me and felt his presence,” Autry said.
And then he made it, a simple basket that gave Gardena Serra an insurmountable four-point lead and a State Division III championship. Serra's 63-59 overtime victory over Oakland Bishop O'Dowd had a little of everything, including a kept promise.
Autry's father, Stephen Autry, died from congestive heart failure related to leukemia, the night before Serra was named the top-seeded team in the Southern Section playoffs. The Cavaliers promised to play in Stephen Autry's memory, and they pulled through wearing the same black tribute uniforms they wore for the first time last week.
Keith Shamburger scored 14 and Bene Benwikere scored 12 for Serra. Autry scored nine.
In a physical, emotional matchup, there were huge baskets from throughout the lineup that allowed Serra (34-2) to win state titles in football and basketball.
“They all were important,” coach Dwan Hurt said of Serra' s big moments as the game seemed slipping away against a taller opponent. “Each kid stopped up and hit big shots.”
Serra began the fourth quarter with a 48-38 lead, but O'Dowd (30-4) scored the first six points when George Farmer scored a huge three-pointer – his only points. Marqis Lee followed his own miss to get a rebound to make it 54-47 with 3:55 remaining in regulation, but O'Dowd finished with a 7-0 run.
With momentum clearly in O'Dowd's favor, Craig Carter opened the four-minute overtime with a three-point basket from the corner. After trading free throws, Lee made a steal and finger-rolled a layup for a 60-55 advantage with 1:46 left. Ronnie Stevens put back a rebound after Shamburger missed free throws for a 62-59 advantage with 18 seconds remaining.
“Coach reminded me of what we were playing for,” Stevens said of the biggest shot of his career.
Then, Autry's moment.
“This is the biggest thing I ever experienced in my life,” Autry said. “To lose my dad, I had this to cheer me up. I have 14 brothers, two sisters and a lot of uncles on this team. I felt, like, the presence of my father, the presence of God, because without God we wouldn't be here.”
Autry had told the coach before his death he would be with the team in Bakersfield, and if there was divine intervention, Hurt was sure that Stephen Autry had a hand in it with 5.5 seconds left in regulation.
O'Dowd's Jordan Barton had just made a free throw to tie. After a timeout by Serra, but before Barton could take what might have been a game-winning free throw, Richard Longrus was whistled for a lane violation. Possession, Serra.
And the game, too.