GARNER — Kyrece Mills couldn’t have picked a better way to finish Senior Night.
The senior forward received an inbounds pass in the left corner with 0.5 seconds left to play and fired up a perfect rainbow that splashed at the buzzer, giving Garner a 61-58 comeback win over Wake county rival Southeast Raleigh in a game worthy of one of those televised “instant classics.”
Mills finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and five steals in Wednesday’s victory, which came despite an 18-point deficit early in the third quarter and a 13-point Southeast lead after three.
The result gave the Trojans an 11-game winning streak heading into the state 4A playoffs beginning Monday night.
Garner, which will have the No. 2 seed out of the Greater Neuse River conference, improved to 16-7 and finished conference play at 12-2. Southeast fell to 13-8 and 9-6 with one game remaining.
Garner, which has won five straight in the boys’ series, won the other meeting 70-51 on Jan. 10 on the Bulldogs’ court.
After numerous postponements which backed up regular-season games, the conference tournament was cancelled leaving regular-season finales as the top teams’ last games before state playoff action.
In girls’ action, Southeast rolled 63-25 in Garner’s season finale.
Guard Julius Barnes led the Trojan boys with 20 points.
“That was a lot of fun,” Garner coach Eddie Gray said. “How did I set up the last basket? I went to Sunday School.
“The boys scrapped real hard and got us back in the game. We came back after we started playing defense and quit celebrating Senior Night. We didn’t practice very well yesterday and it carried into the game. We were too complacent and too happy early in the game. I told them Southeast wasn’t going to come in here and roll over and they didn’t. We were lucky to get enough baskets to win. I hope the boys feel like champions, because if they don’t we won’t play like champions next week.”
Kwamaine Fairley led Southeast with 16 points, followed by Demetrius Sanders with 14 and William Walker 10.
The Bulldogs came out as if fired from a cannon, scoring the game’s first 13 points including five each from Sanders and Walker.
“It was an exciting night,” said Southeast coach John Baker, who was once a Garner assistant under Gray. “We were beating them with a zone early in the game. Eddie knows I don’t usually do that.
“But we just turned the ball over too many times against the press in the second half and just didn’t handle it well. There was no question it was going to be close, even if we were up 18 points. If we were down 18 it would have been the same thing. I just have to commend Kyrece. He just refused to lose the game on Senior Night.”
Garner trailed 49-35 following a Walker free throw with 6:41 to go before its full-court press really began to bother the visitors.
Sparked by a raucous home crowd the Trojans went on an 18-0 run. The key play of that whole stretch was a deep Barnes’ 3-pointer with 5:51 left to cut the margin to 49-41 after Garner had hauled in four straight offensive rebounds.
“We weren’t executing the game plan,” Barnes said. “We had to pick our heads up and pick it up on defense. When we did we got on a few runs and the game started changing.
“I think that basket was real big. We got some confidence out of that possession and picked it up from there.”
Southeast never led again. Mills left the door open when he hit just the second of two free throws with 18.1 left to make it 58-55, and Sanders tied it from the top of the key with eight seconds left.
Garner retained possession on a loose ball that went out of bounds at 0.5, setting up the most memorable shot of Mills’ career.
“I was just making sure I got the shot up in time,” Mills said. “That’s the biggest shot I ever hit.
“When we got behind we decided we weren’t going to lose on Senior Night, and we made the plays we needed to to win.”