Smyrna-Sallies comes down to last half-second, and Eagles soar to final
Olumuyiwa Salako is a 50% free-throw shooter for Smyrna.
So when he missed the first of two foul shots with the score tied, six-tenths of a second on the clock and tension filling Birkenheuer Memorial Gymnasium Thursday, Smyrna coach Andrew Mears had no doubt.
The second shot was a sure thing.
“Through the years we’ve had him, he’s our best game-winner guy,” Mears said. “ … Law of averages, he’s gonna make the next one, right?”
Known as “Moo” to his teammates, Salako drained it to give Smyrna a 43-42 DIAA Boys Basketball Tournament semifinal win over Salesianum that appeared likely much of the night before the Eagles needed late clutch shots to rally from behind.
“Had to make the second one,” said Salako, a senior and fourth-year varsity player. “The first one I knew I changed my shot a little bit and I shouldn’t have, so I just went back to my old regular free-throw routine and I knocked it down, by the grace of God.”
Smyrna led the entire game until Sallies tied it 36-36 on Brett O’Hara’s fast-break layup with 4:07 left and inched ahead about a minute later.
But the Eagles got a huge 3-pointer from the left corner from Majesti Carter with 29 seconds left to go up 42-40.
“Before the game, I told the team if you need me I’m gonna step up,” said Carter, whose only baskets of the night were Smyrna’s last two from the field. “And they needed me and I stepped up. I capitalized.”
Justin Molen then delivered a pair of clutch free throws himself for Salesianum, tying it 42-42 with 9.5 seconds left before Smyrna added the winning point.
“We knew it was gonna be a game like this,” Salako said.
Smyrna earned its third title-game berth in five years after winning its first state boys basketball championship in 2017 against Caravel before dropping the 2018 final to St. Elizabeth.
Waiting in Saturday’s 4 p.m. title tilt in the Dover High gym will be the tournament’s most prolific winner since its 1967 inception. Nine-time champ Sanford's 40-39 semifinal win over Tower Hill came in equally dramatic fashion.
As in the last state championship game in 2019 when Sanford edged Dover 48-45, the Warriors must cope with an unbeaten foe. No. 6-seeded Smyrna brings a 19-0 record into the final, though Mears admits that perfect mark is deceiving.
“Even though our record’s unblemished,” Mears said, “the last four or five games have been the underdog feel, play from behind, we got nothing to lose. The record looks perfect but really this group has battled through their fair share of adversity.”
The No. 2-seeded Sals, trying to return to the championship game for the first time since their back-to-back 2014 and 2015 titles, finished 13-3.
Molen was Salesianum’s only double-digit scorer with 21 points
Elijah Credle led Smyrna with 13 points, including some big shots that staked the Eagles to a 9-4 lead that closed the first quarter, a 25-15 halftime edge and a 33-26 advantage through three quarters. Elisha Gregory scored 11.
But turnovers plagued Smyrna and nearly spelled its demise. The Eagles had 21 in the game, the last 15 coming over their first 24 possessions of the second half.
“We got a little tight but more of a credit to Sallies’ defense,” Mears said. “They really turned it up.”
Salesianum took its first lead 38-37 with 3:11 left on Rasheen Caulk’s short jumper, followed by Ethan Hinds’ two free throws that made it 40-37.
Carter then answered with a basket for Smyrna that made it 40-39 but Sallies missed a couple of chances to extend its lead before Carter drilled his 3-pointer.
“I knew we were gonna have to work hard,” Carter said, “I knew it was gonna be a tough game. But I knew we were gonna win before we started. I had confidence.”
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