THIS GAME: Fairfield’s come-from-behind win over Argyle

Photo by Russell Wilburn

At some point in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 4A state championship game between Fairfield and Argyle, I started sending all of my live tweets in all-caps, because what had started out as a dominant Argyle performance had shifted, and as Fairfield’s relentless press started to ease them back into the game, it became clear that this wasn’t just a normal basketball game. This had become a certified "THIS. GAME." game.

You know that kind of game, the kind where every play feels like it will change everything, where the crowds on each side of the arena become a singular entity, a mass of screams after each moment so that you can’t even tell by the end who wants which team to win. It's a phrase you mutter to yourself every time something happens during it.

That’s what Fairfield’s thrilling 40-39 overtime win over five-time defending champion Argyle turned into: THIS. GAME.

But it didn’t seem like that’s what we were getting after a first quarter in which Argyle was utterly dominant. Through the first period of play, the Lady Eagles — and yes, both teams are Eagles — looked like they were about to capture their sixth-straight and that senior and SMU signee Rhyle McKinney was about to capture her second 4A MVP award.

McKinney is an absolute marvel to watch play basketball, as she’s able to score in so many ways. Argyle built up a 16-2 lead to open the game, and the whole reason for that was that McKinney was just being her unstoppable best. She opened the scoring by setting a pick, looking like she was about to shoot off the pick-and-pop, and then putting the ball on the floor and driving inside for the bucket. She followed that up with a pair of threes, and then an assist to set up a three, and then a block to end the first quarter. Argyle was locked in. They were in control. The Alamodome was living in Rhyle McKinney’s world.

And then, the tides started to shift. Fairfield has more size, and they were able to start exploiting that size, with 6-foot-1 senior Braden Bossier and 5-foot-10 freshman McKinna Brackens working the ball inside and slowly chipping away at the Argyle lead. In particular, Argyle seemed to have no answer for Brackens, who earned the 4A MVP award after the game and who was able to use her length to make things happen in the post. Brackens also came up with the biggest play of the game for Fairfield, though we’ll get to that in a minute.

Fairfield shifted its defensive strategy as a way of trying to slow down Argyle, using the 1-2-2 zone in the second half to try forcing turnovers and limit Argyle’s ability to get clean looks. Argyle managed to hold onto the ball fairly well, but the shift in Fairfield’s approach defensively still paid dividends, as a 25-11 halftime lead for Argyle ended up in a 40-39 Fairfield win.

But momentum shifts and comebacks don’t necessarily mean a game is going to become a THIS GAME. What really made this game so memorable was everything that happened in the fourth quarter.

Argyle entered the final quarter with a 27-22 lead, and while the momentum had shifted Fairfield’s direction, a five-point lead going into the fourth quarter for a team that’s so good at slowing the pace, holding the ball, and running out the clock. Argyle head coach Chance Westmoreland even mentioned this after the game, telling the media that the team’s ability to stall the ball late in games is part of what got them this far, mentioning how the team used the tactic earlier in the playoffs against Canyon to help them clinch the victory

But, as Westmoreland added during his remarks, “anytime you stall the ball with a close lead you’re playing with fire,” and that definitely proved to be true.

Fairfield got the scoring going in that final frame, cutting the lead down to three on a Braden Bossier jumper, and a huge three from Kayelee Adams with 6:19 to play got Fairfield within two. McKinney got it back to four, but then McKinna Brackens started to take over. The freshman got a layup with 5:15 to go, finishing through contact and heading to the line to complete an and-one that got Fairfield within one. A pair of missed free throws by McKinney got Fairfield the ball back, but McKinney quickly responded, making a jumper in the paint to put Argyle back up three.

From there, Argyle seemed ready to stall things out. After a defensive rebound with 3:27 to play in the quarter, Argyle held the ball until Brooklyn Carl turned it over at the 2:31 mark. Fairfield immediately went back to Brackens, who scored again with just over two minutes to go to bring the margin back to one.

And then came one of the big turning points of the game, one of those moments that that seemed unbelievable: Argyle burned nearly a minute off the clock with their stalling technique, but then McKinney got too close to the half-court line, stepped just over it and got whistled. It was Fairfield ball with under a minute to go. The entire Alamodome seemed to be in shock.

But it wasn't over. Fairfield turned the ball over and had to foul McKinney, sending her to the line with 12 seconds to play to shoot a pair of free throws. She made the first one. Fairfield called a timeout. I started thinking through all the various scenarios, what Argyle would do if they made the free throw, what they'd do if they missed it. McKinney couldn't convert, and then this happened:

There are a lot of things that one could point to if they were asked to talk about what the story of this game was, but I think this play might be the one I'd highlight, because this game wasn't about what Argyle couldn't do; it was about what Fairfield could, and it was about a first-year forward coming onto the biggest possible stage and saying "I can do this."

McKinna Brackens gets the rebound off the McKinney miss. She drives the length of the floor, gives the ball up to one of her teammates in the corner, and then stays out at the three-point line. That teammate doesn't have a clean look, so she passes the ball back to Brackens, who fakes the pass to Braden Bossier and then puts the ball on the floor, driving into the paint and hitting the biggest layup of the night, and just like that, we had overtime. It was the first time the game had been tied since 0-0. Brackens — who finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds and was a +6 when on the floor — was an unlikely source of this kind of production and heroic, but San Antonio is a place where stars are created, and Brackens is on her way to being a star.

In overtime, Argyle got off to a three-point lead, but a huge three from Jarahle Daniels tied it back up. And after Argyle got the ball back with 2:20 to go, they seemed content to hold for the final shot, but Fairfield forced the turnover, Jada Clark made the layup and the foul on the other end, and with six seconds to play, Fairfield had its first lead of the entire game.

And at that point, it probably should have been over. Argyle didn't have a timeout and had to go the length of the floor and get a transiton three with six seconds to go to send us to a second overtime. That's an improbable scenario in a game where Fairfield had played such tight defense.

But Rhyle McKinney did what she does, getting down the court in a hurry, getting fouled as she lifted for a 3-pointer. Suddenly, the senior headed to the line.

And while the story of this game should be the blossoming of Brackens and the question of what Fairfield will look like next year with Brackens back but a handful of seniors graduating, the enduring image of the game is something else.

That image is Rhyle McKinney alone at the free throw line. Her teammates gathered back at halfcourt, McKinney was the only Argyle player up there, and she sunk the first two. She couldn't get the third to go, but she snaked her way to the offensive rebound, getting one last shot up, and even though that shot didn't go either and Fairfield won the state title, that image sticks in my mind when I think of this game.

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