MURFREESBORO — Cloudland’s dramatic comeback was wiped away by one loud whistle.
The Highlanders overcame a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit to take the lead, but the game was decided on the free throw line after a foul called on Cloudland’s Zac Potter 30 feet from the basket with 2.1 seconds left in a tie game. McEwen’s Garrett Mullinicks made one of two free throws and Cloudland couldn’t secure the rebound for a last-second shot, giving the Warriors a 65-64 win.
“We’re not blaming anything on the officiating,” said Cloudland head coach Brandon Carpenter. “I’m not an official. Those guys get paid, and they made the call.”
It was a season-ender for the Highlanders, who finished 22-13. McEwen (31-1) advanced to take on the winner of Thursday’s late semifinal between Friendship Christian and Chattanooga Grace.
There was also another call that went against Cloudland in the final seconds. With 4.1 seconds remaining, Mullinicks lost the ball out of bounds as he fell to the ground 60 feet from the basket. No foul was called, but the ball was mysteriously awarded back to McEwen.
Even Mullinicks said Potter didn’t touch the ball before it went out of bounds.
“He didn’t touch it, but I felt like I got fouled,” said Mullinicks.
When Mullinicks eventually got to the foul line, it was something he had thought about long ago.
“When I’m in the gym by myself, I’ve always pictured myself with us tied or down one at the state tournament,” said Mullinicks. “I laughed about it because I was finally here. There was nervousness, but I knew I could hit it.”
Mullinicks finished with 29 points and seven assists in a whirlwind performance.
It could have been Cloudland celebrating. With 6.6 seconds left in the game, the Highlanders were down one with Jeffrey Rhinehart shooting two free throws. He missed the first one, but after a timeout he made the second to tie the game at 64-64.
Mullinicks had given McEwen the lead with 18 seconds left on a jumper from the foul line that crawled in.
“My favorite shot is a foul line jumper,” said Mullinicks. “I just tried to get there as quickly as possible.”
Mullinicks’ heroics offset a superb comeback by Cloudland, which trailed by 16 points twice in the third quarter. And the Highlanders were still down 52-39 with 6:53 left in the game when they began their comeback bid.
Taylor Whitehead, Dylan McClellan and Potter fueled the comeback. McClellan scored seven points and Potter had four to make it 56-52 and set the stage for Whitehead.
Whitehead made a bucket with 1:37 left to cut the deficit to two, and then drained a 3-pointer with 1:02 left to make it 58-57.
“I’m not really a good 3-pointer shooter, but I will take what I can get,” said Whitehead. “I’m really disappointed. We played awful.”
After a bucket by Patrick Mullinicks, Whitehead tied the game with an old-fashioned three-point play. Garrett Mullinicks then made a pair of free throws with 48.7 seconds left to make it 62-60.
Then Potter came up with a three-point play to put Cloudland ahead 63-62 with 28.7 seconds left. That set the stage for Mullinicks’ jumper and the tough end of the game for Cloudland.
“We didn’t get any breaks in the last minute,” said Carpenter. “But if we had played like we’re capable of playing, we wouldn’t have been down 16 points.
“We thought we could wear them down because we felt they only had one ballhandler. (Garrett Mullinicks) is a super player, but the bottom line is we play the first half like we should and we win. We missed easy layups. We’ve got to do a better job.”
The Highlanders hurt themselves from the free throw line, missing 13 times in 32 attempts. They were outrebounded 41-29, but held a 14-8 edge down the stretch and had four offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter.
Cloudland struggled to find its range early in the game, but still trailed just 9-5 in the final minute of the first quarter. However, McEwen got a buzzer beater from Patrick Mullinicks to take an 11-5 lead.
That kicked off an 8-0 run that made it 17-5. The Highlanders didn’t back down, going on an 8-2 spurt to close within six at 19-13 midway through the second quarter.
But the Warriors had an emphatic answer. They scored nine straight points in 1:31 and suddenly Cloudland was staring at the ugly end of a 28-13 score. The Highlanders trailed 31-20 at the break.
Cloudland got 20 points and six rebounds from Potter. Whitehead finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
“We expect to win every time we play,” said Carpenter. “We knew they were 30-1, but we didn’t feel their schedule was that strong. We felt like we should have won, and we’re disappointed.”