What Cory Gensler did Saturday afternoon was just what the Cary senior had been doing all season: in practice and in games. So when his step-back, 23-foot 3-pointer swished through the net as the buzzer sounded lifted the Imps by longtime rival Garner 71-69 in the 4A East regional final, he didn’t have much of a reaction.
He has made a habit of having no reaction to his heroics. Everybody else associated with Cary’s Kelly green erupted as the Imps earned a bid to Saturday’s state championship game against Charlotte Catholic in Chapel Hill.
The shot capped a classic game that featured nine ties and eight lead changes – the last three of those advantage exchanges coming in the final 44 seconds in overtime.
After Thomas Allen had given defending 4A boys basketball state champion Garner a 69-68 lead with a runner with 23 seconds left in overtime, the Imps tried to clear the floor for Gensler to attempt his third buzzer-beating, winning or tying shot of the season. But Allen knocked the ball away from Gensler on his drive.
The Trojans (29-3) couldn’t corral the loose ball, however. It rolled out of bounds in Cary’s favor in front of the Imp bench, giving Gensler a second chance with four seconds left.
Kyle Gensler, Cory’s younger brother, inbounded the ball to Cory, who had an eyeful of Allen near the middle of the 3-point line, took a couple of dribbles before launching a step back 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Allen and the leaping Nick Kuhns.
“Once I saw the official’s hand go up in our direction, I knew we were OK,” Cory Gensler said. “It felt good when I released it.”
It was good; good enough for a state finals spot and Cary’s second defeat of Garner this season.
“There’s nobody I’d rather have in that spot,” Cary coach Allan Gustafson said of Cory Gensler. “Just get the ball in his hands. He takes that step-back move and gets off a great shot. I’ve seen him do it so many times before.”
All three referees signaled the basket was good, but after the horn they conferred about whether or not any time should be remaining, which had fans holding their breath on both sides. The clock stayed at all zeroes.
Cory Gensler had 19 points, 12 rebounds and six assists for Cary (31-1), while fellow standout Donte Tatum led the Imps with 29 points.
Tatum did much of his damage around the basket for the Imps, scoring on drive after drive as the Imps – namely Cory Gensler, Tatum and Darion Burnett – were able to get off decent shots against Garner’s pressure defense.
“Garner is going to get right up on you defensively and they face guard you off of the ball,” Gustafson said. “You have to be strong with the basketball. We knew today was going to be about guys making plays with the ball in their hands. Our guys put the ball down and got clear paths to the basket.”
Cary surged out to a 16-7 lead with the help of two Kyle Gensler 3-pointers before Garner cut the lead to 16-15 in the final minute of the first quarter. Tatum cut short the Trojan rally with a 3-point play to end the quarter, starting a big trend of period-ending baskets by the Imps.
Garner, finally getting the ball inside to its post players in the second quarter, took a 27-23 lead but Cary worked its way back into the lead in the final minute of the half. The Imps completed a 13-3 spurt to end the quarter when Tatum stole a Garner pass with about five seconds left, then raced to the rim, beating the buzzer with a dunk and a 36-29 halftime lead.
“Donte is so strong around the rim and in the open floor,” Gustafson said. “He and Cory complement each other so well. Then you add the 3s that Kyle Gensler hit in the first half, the plays Jay Hicks made and Darion Burnett out there running the point, we had a pretty good game.”
“I thought we missed some easier shots in the first quarter and then we got caught up in a half-court game,” Garner coach Eddie Gray said. “The last play of the (first) half, I thought that was a really big play for them.”
Garner, averaging nearly 90 points a game, went to Allen more and more in the second half – he had a game-high 32 points – and picked up key contributions off of the bench from Javonte Sims and Omari Harris to get within 44-43 late in the third quarter.
Even though Allen had 32, he was held to just one 3-pointer against Cary. The Trojans were 1-of-7 from 3-point range.
“Thomas has carried us all year,” Gray said. “He did again today. We just didn’t have any 3s. It’s a credit to the job Cary did.”
Cary’s ability to make Garner put up tough shots – both out of their half-court sets and on off the dribble – kept the Trojans from their usual high-scoring ways.
“We worked all week on that: Don’t let them drive past us,” Tatum said. “We did a good job of getting the help defense in place at the right time to keep the pressure on them.”
The Imps spread the court for the final shot of the half and Burnett dished to Elijah Idlett in the corner for a 3-pointer and a sudden 47-43 lead.
Cary went back ahead 52-48 on a Cory Gensler drive with 6:05 to play in regulation. Then Garner came back to go up 55-52 on a basket and a free throw from Andrew Abrom. Cory Gensler hit two free throws with 43.7 seconds left to cut the Garner lead to one before Allen scored off of his own miss for a 59-56 lead.
“We went to a quicker lineup with four guards and K.B. (Kenyon Burt) playing ‘goalie’ on defense at one point,” Gray said. “It got us some chances in the break, gave us a chance to get it going offensively.”
Cory Gensler then hit what was the biggest 3-pointer of the night – at that point – on the Imps’ next possession, knocking the ball in from 24 feet to tie the score at 59. Garner missed on its final shot of the fourth quarter, setting up overtime.
“You’ve got to give Cary all the credit,” Gray said. “They’ve done it all year. Their big guy (Cory Gensler) hit a huge shot to get the game to overtime, then hit another heck of a shot to win it.”
The Imps played like game closers to the extreme on the afternoon, outscoring Garner 14-0 in the last 15 seconds of the five periods of play combined.
The loss ends a two-year Garner run with two regional finals appearances, a state championship and 57-4 record. The Trojans’ senior class of Davon Newton, Andrew Abrom, Jalen Ellerbe, Kuhns and Sims were a part of a program with 96 wins and three conference championships.
Cary will be making its eighth appearance in the title game all-time and first since 1995. It is 4-0 in overtime games this season.