McARTHUR — Once Vinton County’s Eli Radabaugh touched the ball with 5.2 seconds left, he had a decision to make.
Either follow the play that was drawn up by head coach Matt Combs, or take it himself and hope for the best.
“The original plan was to get the ball up and pass to Zayne (Karr), who was trailing the play for the final shot,” Radabaugh said.
Then after crossing half court with 2.6 seconds left, he slightly mishandled the ball before getting it back.
A spilt second decision was made right then that he was going to keep the ball, find a small lane, take the shot and cross his fingers.
What followed next was the longest 2.6 seconds of Radabaugh’s life and Vinton County’s season. He crossed half court, took two dribbles and then put the shot up; a runner from the free throw line.
Back iron to front iron to pure nylon.
Buzzer-beater. Pandemonium. Celebration.
63-62. Vinton County beats Jackson.
“I looked up and saw that there was less than three seconds and kind of fumbled the ball, I made the decision right then that I was keeping it,” Radabaugh said. “I threw the shot up, and I thought for sure I missed it. But it went in.”
That final bucket gave Radabaugh points No. 12 and 13 for the evening, alongside a game-high seven assists.
“I couldn’t be more happy for Eli that he got that moment,” Combs said. “We had the play set up, but I don’t think Eli was giving that hall up. He’s grown up so much from last year, and he’s taken some verbal lashings from me at times, but he’s so tough. He’s had a great senior year, and he deserved that one.”
That moment helped take the sting out of having the Vikings’ seven game winning streak snapped just 24 hours prior with a TVC road loss to Alexander.
Being that it was Jackson coming into their house, and considering the potential ramifications coming tournament time since both teams are Division II, it felt like a must have.
“We’ve lost the Jackson over the past few years, regular season and last season in the tournament,” Vinton County’s Zayne Karr said. “We wanted this one and knew we had to bounce back off the Alexander loss.”
Though Jackson held a 14-13 lead heading into the second quarter, it was the Vikings who began to find their shooting touch.
Now holding a 23-22 lead, Braylon Damron and Bradyn Cain each connected from distance before adding another bucket for an 8-0 run, pushing the lead up to 31-22.
Then Asa Davidson joined the fun and scored the next six points for the Vikings, who took a 37-26 lead into halftime.
“That first half was probably the best we’ve played all season,” Combs said. “It was the complete opposite from Alexander where we looked like a deer in the headlights. And, I told our guys before this game that we’re not playing like that anymore. I’d rather get beat straight up than to play scared, and to their credit, they stepped up.”
However, just as Vinton County knew it would, Jackson slowly began to fight back. And used the deep ball to do so.
After shooting 2-of-8 from distance in the first half, Tristan Prater, Holden Blankenship and Evan Jarvis all connected on 3’s.
Though the Vikings led the whole way, it saw its lead shrink from 37-24 at one point down to 49-46 heading into the fourth quarter.
“(Jackson coach) Max (Morrow) has done such an incredible turning around that program,” Combs said. “There was a point where these games weren’t very close, but the way he’s transformed Jackson’s program and how hard those guys play, you knew they weren’t going away. They’re a talented group and make you work for every single bucket.”
Jarvis drilled a corner triple to tie the game 50-50, and the race to the finish ensued.
Jackson then took a 52-50 lead, but the Vikings countered back with five straight points, capped by a triple from Damron for a 55-52 advantage.
With the game at 55-54, Jarvis took the feed from Jacob Winters and cashed on another 3 from the corner to put the Ironmen ahead again.
“We’ve been in those situations before. We’re a team that starts four seniors, so we understood there was still time,” Karr said. “We just had to buckle down and hang in there until the very end.”
However, momentum flipped with Jackson ahead 59-57 with less than a minute left as Prater was whistled for his fifth foul, despite not being a part of the sequence. Davidson calmly swished both free throws to tie the game.
Jarvis then converted a layup, but the Vikings were fouled on the other end and Karr converted both free throws to tie the game 61-61.
Jackson got fouled with 5.2 seconds left and spilt the pair. That set up Radabaugh to drive the length of the court and become a hero with the game winning shot at the buzzer.
“Our kids are resilient and to come back from a tough loss to Alexander and grind this one out to the very end is incredible,” Combs said. “We could have easily come in with our heads down after things didn’t go our way, but all credit to our guys for coming together to get a huge win of a quality Jackson team.”
Karr finished the night as Vinton County’s leading scorer with 16 points, followed by Damron with 14 points and five rebounds.
For Jackson, Winters led all scorers with 18 points and eight rebounds, while Jarvis and Prater added 15 points each.