William FitzPatrick doesn’t deny it.
His two-handed heave Friday night in a literal last-second shot to extend the season was propelled more by hope than skill.
The junior captain of the Vista del Lago High School boys basketball team didn’t even have time to call “bank!” because when his halfcourt buzzer beater went in to eliminate powerhouse Capital Christian 64-62 in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division III quarterfinal, he was engulfed by a sea of humanity. Students, band members, adults – complete strangers – mobbed him on Capital Christian’s court.
There isn’t a presidential candidate who got more hugs and high-fives and took more group selfies than FitzPatrick, who hit a shot to last a lifetime.
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“Crazy, but fun,” FitzPatrick said Saturday. “I barely had time to look up at the clock as time was running out, and I just threw it up. And then you pray. Then it hits you like a flash. I see the video clip of it over and over, and I still can’t believe it. Really?”
Really. Buzzer beaters have highlighted this boys basketball season, including two in the first week of the playoffs. Two days before FitzPatrick’s shot, host Ripon stunned Union Mine 68-66 in a Division IV opener. Cole Stevens banked in a shot from just beyond halfcourt, the ball in flight as the horn sounded, to trigger a wild celebration.
Buzzer beaters are as old as the game, but cellphone video documents them now. They go viral. And there’s no room for exaggeration. Within moments of FitzPatrick’s winner, local Twitter was abuzz with posts the shot was 70 feet or farther.
But why do many winning shots come from so far, defying the odds? Practice. You won’t find a coach who uses valuable practice time to have his players hoist halfcourt shots, but when it’s time for a water break or after practice? Game on.
“That’s when the guys will throw some up for fun, but they never go in,” said FitzPatrick, a 4.0 student who wants to study sports medicine or engineering in college. “I help coach (Tim Weir) with a feeder program for Vista, and the kids will try some halfcourt shots. It’s fun to try, but it’s a really difficult shot to make. You have to have the right touch, and an opening, because it’s easy to shoot it too hard or take too much off of it. You’re just hoping to hit something.”
Halfcourt shots are a sight to behold. The results elicit contrasting emotions. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors seems to make more than the rest of the NBA combined, and kids are emulating his game. NBA and college teams regularly hold halfcourt shot competitions. Make it and win a truck or scholarship money. Miss it, and you get nothing. No pressure.
The Ripon and Vista Del Lago game winners came off missed free throws by the opponent, with just enough time to rebound, dribble a few paces and unleash.
Terry Battenberg witnessed FitzPatrick’s shot and offered a unique perspective. Battenberg started coaching in 1969 at Jesuit and won championships at a number of schools – including Capital Christian and Vista del Lago – before bad hips prompted him to take a break last summer.
“Kids practice halfcourt shots a lot more now, so when it happens in a game, they’re not lost,” Battenberg said. “They have a feel for it now. In the old days, a coach would chew a kid out for practicing halfcourt shots because it seemed like a waste of time. Now?”
A basketball lifer, Battenberg was stunned by FitzPatrick’s feat.
“I can’t remember seeing anything like that in a big game,” he said. “Great game. You think, ‘Well, Vista may get a halfcourt shot off, but what are the chances of it going in?’ ”
But is there a more painful way for a team’s season to end than on a buzzer beater? The player who guarded FitzPatrick’s, Tiegen Jones, shared his view.
“It’s the best way to lose because both teams played their hearts out,” said Jones, a senior guard who texted FitzPatrick to congratulate him. “And it’s a matter of luck. Can’t control it. When I saw the ball go up, it was in slow motion, and all I could hear was the screaming. Kudos to (FitzPatrick). I hope they win it all.”
Vista del Lago is finding ways to win. In a playoff opener, junior guard Luke Avdalovic beat defending D-III champion Sierra of Manteca 61-60 with a late three-pointer.
FitzPatrick was the man of the hour late Friday during a team and family celebration at a local eatery. He’s ready for another postgame spread. Seeded seventh, Vista del Lago plays third-seeded Manteca in a semifinal Wednesday in Galt. FitzPatrick and friends have come to expect the unexpected.
“After Luke’s winner, I never thought I’d play in a game so exciting, and it happened,” FitzPatrick said. “It’s the time of our lives. Our coach was joking with us to stop doing this, that we’re going to give him a heart attack. I love my teammates and school. When you make a halfcourt shot and see everyone running toward you, you’re terrified for a second, but it’s a great feeling to have.”