*NOTE: The scheduling for the second round was changed after this story was published. The story has been edited to reflect the current second round schedule.
When he stepped to the line with just two seconds remaining, Preston Whitfield had a chance to give the Capitals some cushion in the first round of the TBL playoffs. He finished the night with 38 points, and none bigger than those final two free throws.
Those final two points gave the Capitals a 117-114 lead, and helped seal the postseason win.
“Every time I shoot I try to shoot with confidence, I wasn’t really worried about it,” Whitfield said. “I just came to the line and knocked down those free throws.”
Seconds earlier on the defensive end he came away with the ball from a crowd, and broke down court as precious seconds ticked away and the Capitals moved closer to a second round matchup with the Seattle Super Hawks.
Vancouver had possession, down one with 15 seconds to play. They got the ball in the hands of the guy they wanted with it, Jaylynn Richardson, who had a team-high 31 points.
“I told everybody to guard up, they did that,” Capitals head coach Kevin Johnson Jr. said. “They didn’t even get a shot attempt. That’s the best thing I can ask for at the end.”
Isaiah Gentry and Allen Billinger Jr. came with the double team on Richardson near the top of the key. Richardson worked towards the bottom of the court and tried to drive baseline, losing to the ball.
Jeremy Burright had a chance to secure the ball for Vancouver in the key, but it was poked out and Whitfield came out of the crowd and down court.
As he came down court and the foul was called, Whitfield tucked the ball away and began to run in celebration, prompting a delay of game warning.
“The realization that it’s almost over and all I have to do is knock down those two free throws to get us up there,” Whitfield said about his moment of celebration.
Whitfield gave the Capitals a three-point lead and left Vancouver with just the hopes of a last-second heave to potentially tie the game. Richardson got a look for more than just a heave, but his catch and shoot 3 as he sprinted down court came off the iron as time expired.
With the win comes a little revenge. Four nights prior, Vancouver ended Salem’s seven-game win streak. In that game, Salem was cold, shooting just 17% on 3s.
Tuesday, they hit 16 of 33 from beyond the arc, a big boost considering they shot just 42% on two-point shots.
“Luckily we were able to make shots today,” Johnson said. “If we didn’t, we would’ve been in a lot of trouble.”
And it was Vancouver’s inside scoring that put Salem in trouble. Vancouver outscored Salem 74-34 in the paint.
Salem definitely doesn’t have a lot of size, especially with 7-footer Kylor Kelley signing on with Calgary of the Canadian Elite Basketball League and no longer available for Johnson.
But Salem was able to grind it out on Tuesday, withstanding the Vancouver onslaught inside.
“I don’t care, I’ll take these dudes over any taller dudes, to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “They go out there, they play hard, they fight, they box out, they put their bodies on the line all the time. We’re not going to change height, but I promise you I’ll exchange that for the dogs that we have.”
That dog-in-the-fight mentality was on display for Salem from the start. At the beginning of the game Isaiah Gentry went knee-to-knee with Dezmond Rowen from Vancouver. It clearly hampered Gentry throughout the game, but didn’t hold him back.
Despite the obvious discomfort, Gentry, Salem’s third leading scorer on the season, put up 11 points in the first half, tying him for the team lead.
Gentry finished with 19, third on the team, shooting 7-for-9 from the field. But it was a gritty play at the end of the second quarter from Gentry that told the story for him and the Capitals’ night.
With just over two minutes left, Gentry dove to the floor for a loose ball, got it out ahead to Allen Billinger Jr., who went to the line and knocked down a pair of free throws.
“I saw a ball and I was thinking, ‘that’s my ball,’” Gentry said. “That’s my ball, I need to get it and try to create something out of it.”
It’s the type of hustle play that can decide a game, and even a season. And at this point, Gentry and the Capitals know what they have to do.
“It’s win or go home at this point, tomorrow’s not promised,” Gentry said. “That’s what put us ahead of them is we were willing to make the winning plays at the end and throughout the game we were diving all four, we were getting scrappy and that’s something that we wanted to make a standard in this postseason.”
Salem now has a date with the West’s top-seeded Seattle. Seattle took the season series 3-2, but, aside from the first meeting between the two this season, each game has been decided by just one possession.
But they won’t have long, with just a day of rest before the three-game series tips off in Seattle on Thursday.
“Since May 20th we’ve already played them twice and we already just played them here,” Johnson said. So I mean, we got to do what we got to do to prepare. It’s a quick turnaround, but we’ll be ready.”