Last Saturday in Winston-Salem, Steven Santa Ana hit the biggest shot of his life.
The Ardrey Kell High senior made a 3-point jumper from deep in the right corner at Lawrence Joel Coliseum in the N.C. 4A Western Regional championship game. As the ball was in the air, time expired. When it went through, Ardrey Kell beat West Charlotte 52-50 and qualified for its first 4A state championship game.
By the time he got on the bus, still feeling the euphoria from his shot, Santa Ana turned on his cell phone and discovered his heroics had gone viral. His play was on YouTube and Twitter and Instagram, from four or five angles. It was even in slow motion.
“I watched it a lot,” said Santa Ana, 18, who will lead his team in Saturday’s state final against Garner at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. “I was still in shock that it even happened. The moment was surreal, and knowing we get to go to the state championship because of it now, it was just a really cool moment. I’ve been told by a lot of people to cherish this moment and enjoy it.”
Santa Ana, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, thought his team had a great chance to get to the state championship game in 2014. He led the Knights to the N.C. 4A Western Regional semifinals. He didn’t play well, shooting 2-for-17, but the Knights were in position to beat Lake Norman late, before Davidson recruit Kishawn Pritchett launched a high-arching, left-handed 3-pointer as time expired to beat Ardrey Kell 45-43 in Greensboro.
Three hundred and sixty six days later, Santa Ana made his game-winner.
“I think everybody has seen it now,” Ardrey Kell coach Mike Craft said. “I don’t know who said it first, but they’ve said, ‘It was the shot heard ’round North Carolina.’ ”
Craft said the key for Santa Ana, and the entire Knights’ team, is to put last week’s win behind them.
Garner (27-1) has won 18 straight games – nationally ranked Ardrey Kell (28-1) has won 27 in a row – and Garner features three players who average double figures: sophomore Thomas Allen (17.4 points per game), senior Julius Barnes (14) and sophomore Jashaun Smith (14). Barnes has more than 1,000 points and more than 450 assists in his career.
Santa Ana knows his team is in for a challenge.
“From what I’ve heard and seen on film, Garner’s a really good team, and it’s going to take a full team effort to win,” he said. “Both teams are really good and execute well. It’s going to come down to who makes the least mistakes. We’ll show up to play defense. I think we’re ready.”
Craft has spent the week trying to make sure his team is focused. He said nearly the entire student body plans to make the two-hour trip to Chapel Hill, as well as many of the school administrators. Craft has spent the week taking calls from former players and friends. Everybody wants to talk about the excitement of the semifinal game and the excitement of Santa Ana’s big shot.
Craft said he has the same message for everyone: “I keep telling them we have a game on Saturday in the Dean Dome and we’ve got to get ready to play.”
Craft said he likes his chances with a team led by seven seniors – Seth Davis, Collin Cooper, Rhyle Scott, Josh Freund, Luke Lawson, Devin Cooper and Santa Ana. Devin Cooper has missed the last few playoff games after tearing a ligament in his knee. That has forced Davis to nearly double his minutes and play much more point guard. Davis held up well, Craft said, against intense pressure applied to him by West Charlotte, and he said the Knights have continually received solid performances out of inside players Scott and Freund.
Santa Ana, who has signed with Elon, has been a constant, too.
He holds nearly every school record and was a conference player of the year as a sophomore. This season, he’s averaging 15.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals. He’s a deadly jump shooter who runs around screens like a snake chasing food. But he also has become adept at driving the ball to the basket.
If he wasn’t already, Saturday’s shot probably cemented his status as his school’s best player. But Santa Ana has plans for an encore to his big shot.
He wants to win a ring Saturday night.
“We’re excited to be here,” he said, “and we’re so blessed, but we want that state championship. I’ve been telling everybody when they congratulate me that we’re not done. People don’t often remember the team that makes the state championship. They remember the team that wins the state championship. We’ve accomplished a lot, but we’re still hungry. We haven’t accomplished what we really, really wanted to accomplish yet.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr