By Kim West
With two seconds remaining, Tanner’s Desmond Love inbounded the ball from the baseline to JonJon Fletcher, who caught the long pass near midcourt, shook a defender and launched an off-balance rainbow from NBA 3-point range that sliced through the netting as the crowd erupted into bedlam at Tom Drake Coliseum.
The junior shooting guard’s buzzer-beater gave No. 10 Tanner a 45-42 comeback victory against Vincent during Saturday’s Class 2A Northwest Regional finals at Wallace State Community College as the Rattlers are headed to their second straight Final Four after winning state titles in 2011 and 2013.
Tanner coach Chris Whitt, who was wearing his lucky bright green tie and an elated expression during the postgame press conference, said the play was pulled straight from the Rattlers’ daily practice drills.
Fletcher, who was named tournament MVP and finished with 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range, said he gained confidence from converting a similar shot to win the semifinal game of the Limestone County tournament in January.
“Coach drew it up (during the final timeout), and I knew I had to hit it,” Fletcher said. “I had confidence in myself because I had a game-winning shot in the county tournament.
“They overplayed (the inbounds pass) and then I slipped over (Vincent’s Edmond McCrimon) … when I saw it go in, I felt like so much stress left me.”
Tanner (20-8) led 17-16 at halftime but fell into a 10-point deficit in the second half to the unranked Yellow Jackets (16-14).
But then a rim-rattling dunk by Love in the fourth quarter fired up the Rattlers’ bench and the crowd, swinging momentum back to Tanner.
“I just knew I had to get the dunk to get that momentum boost for us,” Love said.
Tanner took a one-point lead with 2:59 remaining in the final period and then neither team could light up the scoreboard as they traded airball treys and turnovers.
Fletcher momentarily left the game after being shaken up from a hard collision in the paint with 47.4 seconds left and Tanner clinging to the one-point lead. Vincent’s Roderick Brown sank one of two free throws to tie the game at 42 and then Love, who had a team-high 15 points and seven rebounds, followed with his only free throw miss.
On the Yellow Jackets’ ensuing possession, Love and Blake Whitt double teamed Brown in the backcourt and Whitt stole the ball to set up the final play for Fletcher.
When asked to describe the reaction from Fletcher’s game-winner, Love — also named to the Northwest Regional all-tournament team along with Fletcher — said the Rattlers aren’t ready for their season to stop.
“It was very fun but we’re ready to go to Birmingham after that ‘3,’” Love said with big grin.
Tanner will face Elba in the 2A Final Four at the Birmingham-Jefferson Complex Arena on Tuesday. Tipoff is at 4:30 p.m., with the winner advancing to the state championship game at 3 p.m. Friday.
Jacorey Roper led Vincent with 13 points and Brown and Elton Datcher chipped in with 10 apiece.