Separation was impossible. Breathing room was small and fleeting.
In a gritty back-and-forth battle, Class AAAA No. 1 Columbia hit 11 of 12 overtime free throws to outlast No. 2 Marist 52-50.
“For the first time this season, I’m just sitting over there coaching, and I feel exhausted,” said Columbia coach Kerry Sandifer, after his team survived 14 lead changes and 11 ties with a Marist team that looked every bit good enough to hand Columbia (21-2) just its third loss of the season.
But when the defensive slugfest turned into a free throw-shooting contest, and the game tilted ever so slightly toward Columbia, it was up for the test.
Columbia’s final 13 points of the game came from the stripe, including two with 1:06 left in the fourth quarter that proved to be the final points of regulation.
Those came from Auburn signee Tahj Shamsid-Deen, who finished with a game-high 22 points and was 7 of 8 on free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime.
He was a key part of the Columbia effort from the line that was just enough to hold off Marist (18-3).
“We really stepped up and hit them when it counted,” Sandifer said. “That was the difference in a really defensive battle.”
Overtime was fitting in this game, in which neither team led by more than 5, and nobody seemed to have a knockout blow to deliver.
Coming the closest for Marist was Bobby Perez, a small guard who kept getting loose for shots, hitting five 3-pointers en route to a team-high 20 points.
His biggest shot came in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, giving Marist a 40-37 lead, its biggest of the game.
Columbia got a short jumper from Shamsid-Deen to get back within 1, and then his two free throws tied it after Marist’s Quinton Stephens went 1 of 2 at the line with 1:18 left.
With the postseason quickly approaching, this is the type of game Sandifer said his team needs to be able to win, in front of a hostile crowd, against a team that can match them shot for shot.
He said, regardless of the outcome, he knew his players were going to get something positive out of this game.
“The thing I told them right before we left,” Sandifer said, “win or lose, this is a rehearsal for the region tournament and the state tournament coming up. I said, ‘Either way, no matter what happens, we’re going to come out of this a better team.”