Bryan Smith flung the ball toward the basket and immediately started smiling, all alone at half-court, as the horn went off. Midwood’s star senior guard wasn’t alone for long.
He was soon mobbed by what he said felt like was the entire school – cheerleaders, teammates, classmates, even a few teachers – celebrating the thrilling comeback victory that Smith orchestrated, one that was unthinkable in the third quarter.
“Happy is not even the word to describe it,” he said after the top-seeded Hornets’ dramatic, come-from-behind, 64-60 PSAL Class A quarterfinal win over Brooklyn Collegiate on March 8. “We worked hard all season for this.”
It was rather fitting that Smith capped the comeback by grabbing a defensive rebound and tossing it skyward. For while the heavily recruited senior struggled from the field, he was at his best when his team needed him most, when it was flat and down 14 points late in the third.
In a game-closing 26-8 run, he scored 11 of his game-high 20 points, had five steals, three assists and several rebounds, breathing life into his teammates and the capacity crowd. He got the good vibes going with a deep 3-pointer from the right wing, unselfishly set up Emmanuel Joseph for a go-ahead 3-pointer with 52 seconds left and rolled in a fast-break layup to push the difference to four 32 seconds later.
“Every time I looked up and Bryan has the ball in his hands, on a deflection or steal, and with three guys on him, he just willed his way up the court,” Midwood coach Victor Gjecaj said. “He was like, ‘Everybody get on my back, we’re not losing this game.’”
Dimtiri Dolce added 13 points, Joseph had 11 and Elijah Chambers 10 for Midwood while Ervin Mitchell paced the Lions with 19 points and Arnold Fripp tallied 16.
Brooklyn Collegiate seemed to be in complete control, up 52-38 with two minutes left after Fripp’s alley-oop off an inbounds play. The 6-foot-5 Fripp and Mitchell, the Lions’ other versatile forward, were having a field day in the paint, playing taps on the glass. Midwood’s 6-foot-8 center Enees Nikovic had trouble keeping up and Gjecaj noticed, pulling the senior in favor of a smaller lineup.
The adjustment worked; Midwood created eight Brooklyn Collegiate turnovers in the fourth quarter, quickened the game’s pace and used that speed to shut off the lane for Mitchell and Fripp.
“Our coach told us we never went on a run; once we go on a run, we will have them on their [heels],” Joseph said. “They started getting scared, so we ran with it and kept going.”
Smith was integral, aiding Joseph and Brandon Edwards on the glass and getting into the paint off the dribble with his jumper not falling.
In one span, he had three straight steals and scored twice in transition, capping a 17-2 to give Midwood a 55-54 lead with 4:24 remaining. After Rashaad John scored the Lions’ first points of the fourth quarter – 5:52 into the frame – on a running one-hander off the glass, Smith answered with two free throws.
Mitchell enabled Brooklyn Collegiate to regain the lead with a basket inside, but Smith set up Joseph for the 3-pointer, then grabbed a defensive rebound the next time down and finished a beautiful coast-to-coast drive over Fripp for two.
“He’s that dude for them, he’s that player,” Brooklyn Collegiate coach Jake Edwards said. “He saw his team down, he put them on his back and he showed a lot of toughness down the stretch. When you see a kid step up to the plate when it counts, that’s big.”
Midwood has spent the past year waiting to regain such an opportunity. Last season it was the Hornets blowing a late lead in the quarterfinals, shedding tears in their locker room. The team it lost to – Bedford Academy – went on to the ‘A’ title; Midwood thinks it can do the same.
“We knew we were the best team, we are the best team and we’re out to prove it,” Gjecaj said.
It’s been a memorable year for Midwood with Smith leading the charge to the top seed in the ‘A’ playoffs and the Brooklyn A South crown. He set the tone to the year by scoring a school-record 68 points in a league-opening win over James Madison and Tuesday made sure it had at least one more game left.
“This is better,” he said, when asked to compare it to the record-breaking performance. “There was more emotion in it – senior year, last home game. I just want a championship; the whole team wants a championship.”