By Matt Goisman
The McAlester Buffaloes entered Friday’s regional semifinal having exited their previous three postseasons after just one game.
Never underestimate a team that knows it’s been underestimated.
Todd Dawkins and Jalen Erving scored a combined 47 points, helping the Buffs upset the 10th-ranked and heavily favored East Central Cardinals 66-62 Friday at Bishop Kelley in Tulsa.
With the win, McAlester automatically qualified for next weekend’s area tournament. McAlester played Bishop Kelley in the regional championship Saturday. See McAlesterNews.com for Saturday’s results.
“No one believed in us,” Erving said. “The only people who believed in us was our team. So we just used that as our advantage to come here and play mad.”
A 46-46 game after three quarters, East Central went up 5 when Jeffrey Pittman put back an offensive rebound, drew a foul and sank the free throw, then Burke Putnam scored a layup after a McAlester miss. But Erving stole away the Cardinals’ next possession, then found Eli Boyle on the fastbreak for a layup.
East Central missed its next shot, then Austin Taylor kept McAlester’s next possession alive with an offensive rebound. The ball eventually found its way to Erving, who sank a layup, drew a foul and converted it to tie the game 51-51 with 5:05 left in the fourth.
Erving put the Buffs up 56-53 with a 3-pointer, then came away with a steal and a fastbreak layup to give the Buffs a 5-point lead with 2:15 left in the game. Erving finished with 24 points.
Another offensive rebound led to another score by Pittman for East Central, but the Buffs successfully ran the clock down to 55 seconds before the Cardinals finally fouled Erving for a 1-and-1.
Erving sank both free throws to keep it a 5-point game. Pittman missed on the opposite end, Texas Pascale grabbed the defensive rebound and also sank both free throws for his fifth and sixth points of the game.
Quantel Givens’ 3-pointer made it 62-58 Buffs with 37.5 seconds left, but the Cardinals had to put Dawkins on the foul line, and Dawkins sank both. McAlester shot a perfect 11-for-11 on free throws in the fourth quarter, with Boyle, Dawkins, Erving and Pascale all draining free throws in the final minute to keep the Cardinals from tying the game.
“We shoot 50 (free throws) after every practice, every day,” Dawkins said.
“I just kind of make sure I’m not paying attention to anyone in the crowd and focus.”
Dawkins proved essential in helping the Buffs overcome a 12-point deficit. After Cuintin Baker’s layup pushed East Central’s lead to 25-13, Dawkins scored a layup, then drew a foul after completing the shot.
The foul gave possession to McAlester, and Boyle eventually found Dawkins for a 3-pointer that cut the lead to 25-18. Dawkins drained another 3-pointer off a pass from Pascale, and after DC Pitts sank two free throws, Dawkins ran a backdoor cut, caught a pass from Pascale in the air and laid it in for the alley-oop that made it 27-23.
Dawkins finished with 23 points.
Erving’s layup eventually made it a one-possession game, and after Putnam went 1-for-2 at the foul line, Erving found Dawkins for a 3-pointer that tied the game 28-28. A pass from Keaton Slater to Pascale led to a layup and a McAlester lead, then Erving drained a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left in the half to make it 33-28 Buffs.
“We just kind of got some shots to fall, kept our composure, didn’t allow adversity to affect us (and) kept playing hard,” Buffs coach Chris Zike said Friday night.
“First time in four years to win a playoff game, the kids are excited. ... We’re hoping to take care of business tomorrow (in the regional championship) and be one win away from the state tournament.”
Pitts led the Cardinals with 21 points, while Pittman scored 12. Pitts recorded two steals and a deflection early in the second quarter, and he followed each with a fastbreak basket to score 9 points in a row.
“He’s very athletic, a very good player,” Cardinals coach Lynwood Wade said. “It’s just unfortunate, because he’s a senior, that that’ll be his last game.”
Of the overall game, Wade said, “We just didn’t take care of business. We turned the ball over when we shouldn’t have turned the ball over. We didn’t run offense when we should’ve been running offense. At the end, when we’re up 2, we come down and have four bad possessions. You just can’t win games like that.”
McAlester improved to 8-15 with the win. East Central finished its season 11-11.
Contact Matt Goisman at email@example.com.