A.J. Harris passed off the first time he had a chance for some game-deciding theatrics. There would be no second time.
“Oh, no,” assured Harris, Dunbar’s senior point-guard leader. “I wasn’t going to give it up again.”
Good thing, because Harris’ final free throw with 2.4 seconds remaining in overtime was the difference in Dunbar’s instant-classic 77-76 defeat of Franklin in Saturday afternoon’s celebrated Division II regional final at UD Arena before 7,500 spectators.
The victory sends Dunbar (22-5) into Friday’s D-II state final four semifinals against Defiance at Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center.
It was a magnificent marquee matchup that lived up to all its deserved hype that began in the preseason. Franklin’s Luke Kennard was unstoppable, closing his storied career with 41 points, 9 rebounds and four 3-pointers.
Dunbar, which trailed throughout, somewhat countered with Harris’ 23 points.
Harris hit a 3 in the final 17 seconds of regulation to pull Dunbar within three. Feeling the Franklin heat on the following possession, Harris passed to Chris Jackson in the corner and he buried a 3 in the final seconds to force OT.
Knotted at 76-all, this time Harris pulled up to take a final shot as the clocked ticked down. A foul was incorrectly called on Jake Riddell — it was Matt Thompson — and Harris rattled in what stood up as the game winner after Kennard’s final shot missed.
“This is how it was supposed to be,” Dunbar coach Pete Pullen said. “It was built up to be this way, two of the best teams in this area facing each other and we did. We battled like two great teams should. Nobody gave in. It’s just we had the last possession and fortunately we got the call and got the free throw down.”
It was a crushing setback for Franklin (26-2). The Wildcats have never before played for a regional title but had their sights set on Columbus. Franklin was up by 13 points late in the third quarter.
“We had it right there in our grasp,” Franklin coach Brian Bales said. “We really felt it had to come through us and (Dunbar) did.”
Evan Crowe added 17 points for Franklin and Riddell hit a trio of 3’s for 10 points. Bales said the locker room was inconsolable afterward.
“They’re tore up,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of tough losses but I’ve never seen a group beat up like that. This group has put so much into it and the impact they’ve had on our community, I think they could taste it. To not be able to finish the way we wanted to is tough. We got a lot of heartbreak in there.”
Doriane Dawson added 17 points, Terrance Landers 12 points and 11 rebounds and Joshua Bryant 12 points for the Wolverines. It’ll be the ninth time Dunbar has advanced to the final four. Dunbar capped an unbeaten season to win the D-II state title in 2012 when Harris was a freshman.
“I just had it in my head we have to win,” Harris said. “I want to go to state.”