WYLIE — In a little more than an instant — 4.2 seconds to be exact — Tarrence Gaines answered the question Wylie East was asking: Can you top this? And he did it with a resounding yes.
After Jose Melendez made a deep three-pointer to tie the game, Denison had its final chance and Gaines made good on the decision to put the ball in his hands with the game-winning shot at the buzzer as Denison defeated Wylie East, 61-58, in District 10-5A action on Friday night.
“I knew if I got the ball up it’d be a good shot. We didn’t want to beat them in overtime. We wanted to beat them right there,” Gaines said. “It just opened up — they were backing off so I just decided to shoot instead of going to the basket.”
It was the fifth three-pointer of the half for Gaines, who scored 20 of his 24 points after the break. None were bigger than the three that came after he raced up the right sideline and got an open look which swished through the net.
“He’s the horse we’re going to ride,” Denison head coach Dale Rhodes said. “As quiet and mild-mannered as he seems, he has to be the guy. I’ve been waiting for that.”
Nate Uber added nine points, Pierce Barker chipped in eight points and Rustin Workman finished with six points for Denison (7-18, 2-5), which gained sole possession of fourth place with the victory and Sherman’s loss to McKinney North.
“We had to have this game before we can have anything,” Rhodes said. “We took Step 1. Now we gotta get ready for Step 2.”
The two rivals meet on Tuesday at Denison in what will be another swing game in the chase for the district’s final postseason berth. Sherman and Wylie East meet on the final night of the regular season, so the drama will carry all the way to the end.
“We’ve got a big game on Tuesday night and we’re looking forward to it,” Gaines said.
Melendez scored 20 points, Quincy Jackson added 19 points and Xavier Smith chipped in 14 points for Wylie East (16-14, 1-6), which needs Sherman to beat Denison and then the Raiders need to beat the Bearcats to stay alive.
If the Yellow Jackets are able to end their eight-year playoff drought, they will look at these closing seconds as what defined their effort to get there. Denison had an eight-point lead on a three-pointer by Zaelin Wimbish with 5:15 remaining and Keleon Vaughn made it a six-point margin with 2:01 left.
Melendez nearly carried the Raiders to OT. He followed Vaughn’s basket with a pair of free throws and then scored underneath with 1:18 left. The final 56 seconds involved a ton of free throws and neither team was able to make more than one in each turn of six total trips.
Xavier Adan made one with 18 seconds remaining for a 58-55 margin and Melendez tied the game with his deep three. Rhodes called a timeout to save whatever previous seconds he could — the refs agreed to put the clock at 4.2 — and Gaines was able to get up the floor and drain the game-winner.
“I told them on the bench they were going to back up so they didn’t foul,” Rhodes said.
Thanks to Gaines’ hot shooting from the outside, the Jackets almost doubled their output from the first half during a 29-point third quarter.
In the middle of the frame was an 18-1 run that took Denison from a 28-21 deficit to a 36-29 lead. The four-minute stretch saved the Jackets.
“We’re able to turn our defense into offense and when they buy into the defensive side of the ball, good things happen for us,” Rhodes said. “We know we can score but we’ve got to stop the other guys.”
Gaines kicked off the quarter with a three but moments later Wylie East pumped its advantage back to 10 points. From there the Raiders only had a free throw by Melendez as Denison surged ahead.
Uber and Gaines sandwiched three-pointers around the lone East point and Workman drove the baseline for a dunk. Adan’s lay-up tied the score at 29 and then Gaines had a putback. Cade Gordy followed with a layup after Barker took a charge and a friendly bounce on Gaines’ three from the top of the key put the Jackets up by seven.
Denison stayed in front the rest of the quarter, thanks to another Gaines three and Uber making all three free throws after a foul on his shot from the corner, and took a 44-40 lead to the fourth as Jackson hit a buzzer-beating three from the left wing.
The first half was a slog offensively for both teams but Denison started worse and was down by double-digits early.
There were just two buckets by the Jackets in the first quarter — from Barker and Workman — while Wylie East connected on four three-pointers — two each from Jackson and Smith — as the Raiders led 14-4 after the first eight minutes.
“We had to keep pushing,” Rhodes said. “We were taking pretty good shots. And it looked like everything they put up was going in.”
Denison picked up the pace in the second quarter and actually outscored East by a point. The early deficit was still proving too big to whittle away and the Jackets were down 24-15 at the break.
Defense keyed the charge to even keep it that close. Denison allowed just one basket over the final five minutes of the half and the Raiders went scoreless, minus a free throw by Darren Quickley, in the closing four minutes.
Gaines put back his own miss and Uber drilled a three from the right corner to help finish the quarter on a high note.