Ardrey Kell High senior guard Steven Santa Ana had a few minutes to think about the shot he was going to make to beat West Charlotte 52-50 Saturday and send the Knights to their first NCHSAA Class 4A championship game.
Ardrey Kell, No. 1 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 and No. 39 in USA Today’s national poll, had rallied from nine points down in the second half. The Knights trailed by a point. Just moments before, Ardrey Kell coach Mike Craft called timeout with 2.4 seconds left, an eye blink before the Knights’ Rhyle Scott made a turnaround jumper that would’ve won the game.
“I should’ve called timeout before that,” Craft said, “but as soon as I did, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh no.’ I thought immediately that I had blown the game.”
Craft didn’t have to worry. Santa Ana sat on the sideline during the break and said a prayer. An assistant coach reminded him to set his feet.
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Ardrey Kell ran a sideline play called “Hips.” It worked perfectly. Josh Freund set a screen for Santa Ana, who ran to the right corner and accepted a pass from point guard Seth Davis. Santa Ana pressed down hard, jumped and released the ball gently, his right wrist bending to leave his fingers pointing at the rim.
Santa Ana’s shot looked perfect all the way. And when the shot went through the net cleanly, the Knights stormed the court with such ferocity that you could feel their sneakers banging against the court at Lawrence Joel Coliseum.
“I felt calm,” Santa Ana said. “I knew I was going to hit that shot for us. I let it go and I felt like it was going in.”
Ardrey Kell (28-1) denied the Lions their eighth trip to the finals and first since 2012. The Knights will make their first appearance in the finals next week and will face Garner at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
Santa Ana led the Knights with 18 points, five rebounds and two assists. He scored 43 points in two regional games after going 2-for-17 in a loss to Lake Norman in the regional semifinals his junior year. Santa Ana, named tournament MVP, was joined by teammate Rhyle Scott, who scored five straight points in the fourth quarter.
West Charlotte (24-4), in the regionals for the sixth time in seven years, got 10 points each from Nakia Rivers, Isiah Blackmon and Michael Boone. The Lions sent wave after wave of athletic guards at Ardrey Kell and prevented the Knights from running their sets as well as normal, but Knights guards Davis and Luke Lawson and Collin Cooper withstood the pressure.
And then Santa Ana hit the biggest shot in school history – and his life.
“We never had them,” West Charlotte coach Baronton Terry said. “They shoot the ball too well. And (Santa Ana) hit a big shot. There’s nothing you can do. I told them that is the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Another season will come.
“Ardrey Kell is very disciplined and runs their stuff. I thought we kept them off balance. They couldn’t run it like they wanted, but (Craft) made some good adjustments. Still, we felt like we were in it the whole time. (Santa Ana) just made a good shot at the right time.”
And that shot left Ardrey Kell’s star player with a huge smile, but at a loss for words.
“This has been one of the greatest experiences ever, the last two nights playing in this great facility,” Santa Ana said. “These guys are my family and I love getting to this spot.”
N.C. 4A Western Regional all-tournament team
Simeon Carter, West Charlotte; Isiah Blackmon, West Charlotte; Jalen Seegars, Greensboro Page; Rhyle Scott, Ardrey Kell; Nakia Rivers, West Charlotte ;Steven Santa Ana, Ardrey Kell (MVP)