Victor Gjecaj had a message for Bryan Smith as the Midwood star crossed half court with the game on the line.
“Hold it. You are taking this last shot no matter what,” the coach told him. “We are either going to go into overtime or he is going to hit the game-winning basket.”
The senior was encouraged by the confidence Gjecaj had in him and rewarded that faith. With the clock ticking down FDR point guard Ala Alzindani reached and Smith went by him. He drove fearlessly into the lane, eluded a defender and put in a tough jumper with 8.2 seconds left in the game.
“He gambled,” said Smith, who was named tournament MVP and celebrated the game-winner with a short and confident fist pump. “I had a big opening. I couldn’t let it go by.”
The basket, his 19th and 20th points of the evening, dashed the Cougars hopes of upsetting their rivals when Alzindani’s 3-pointer hit the left side of the rim. It gave Midwood a hard-fought 46-44 win in the championship game of the Aviator Holiday Hoops Tournament on Dec. 30 in Brooklyn.
“He made a great shot,” FDR coach Brendan Sullivan said. “We challenged it, but it was a great shot.”
Enees Nikovic added nine for Midwood and Alzindani had 12 for FDR. Both were named to the alll-tournament team.
Motivated by a 91-41 loss to Midwood on Dec. 6, the Cougars (10-5) led 31-21 with 5:25 left in the third quarter. Then the Hornets shooting barrage began.
Gjecaj inserted Erick Laurore to exploit the corner shots FDR was willing to allow in its zone and the junior guard delivered. He scored nine points on three 3-pointers and Smith connected four times from behind the arc as well. Midwood (14-2) made three straight triples, two from Smith and one from Laurore, to take a 38-37 lead with 10 seconds left in the third, but a Eric Sandoval (12 points) bucket made gave FDR a one-point lead heading into the fourth.
“My coach just kept telling me to keep shooting,” Laurore said. “I can shoot, I can penetrate, so I just kept on shooting.”
While the Midwood offense was clicking, the title would not have been won without plays on the defensive end. Dimitri Dolce drew consecutive charges after Smith fed Laurore for a 3-pointer from the right corner and a 42-39 lead with 4:21 left.
FDR began to rush and was unable to get many quality possessions down the stretch. FDR turned the ball over twice after Sandoval made 1-of-2 free throws to tie the score at 44-44 with 1:10 remaining.
“That was big, all those plays ... charges, hard rebounds,” Laurore. “It takes a lot of heart and pride. We just wanted it more.”
The Hornets will certainly take plenty of confidence from their performance over the holiday break. It included a wild comback in the semifinals, the Brooklyn school rallying froma a 20-point halftime deficit to knock off Archbishop Molloy in a double overtime thrilling.
“It brings us together as a team,” Smith said. “It shows if we can win this, we can win more tournaments and hopefully the [PSAL Class A] championship.”