LAKELAND — The season was down to one shot. The chance to go to the state championship game was condensed to five seconds. And there was Regan O'Rourke waiting to make everything right.
Clearwater tried every other manner of rescuing itself Wednesday in a Class 5A state semifinal game against Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer on the verge of disaster. There were no other options, none the Tornadoes planned on anyway. The inbounds pass came to O'Rourke near midcourt and the senior made sure he would not fail with the clock short and the scoreboard askew.
O'Rourke caught the ball with four seconds left, drove into the lane and heaved an off-balance jumper with 1.1 left. Clearwater erupted, pandemonium reigned, and at the end of the court a blur of red and grey jerseys danced.
The Tornadoes' new Mr. Clutch banked one in as time soon expired, sending his team to a 44-43 victory.
Clearwater moves on to play Gainesville in the 5A final at 7 p.m. Friday at the Lakeland Center.
"We ran our play, I was the second option," O'Rourke said. "I tried to make a move and get to the basket. Everything just fell together. When I put up that floater, I knew it was going in."
In the frenzied final minute, the Tornadoes (28-3) were 12 seconds from defeat. That's how much time was left when Dwyer's Jacoby Brissett hit a turnaround jumper after a mass scrum to put the Panthers ahead 43-42.
Clearwater turned the ball over on its next possession and had to foul — twice — to put Dwyer's Ramon Galloway on the line with nine seconds remaining.
But Galloway, who has signed with South Carolina, missed the free throw and the Tornadoes grabbed the rebound.
That gave Clearwater hope.
Moments later, Tornadoes guard Cory Carden raced up court and called timeout with 5.1 seconds left.
Clearwater coach Allen Carden called for a play with two options. Joey Nungester took the ball on the inbounds and initially was to look for Cory Carden on the left corner of the court. But a Panthers defender jumped on that route.
That left O'Rourke open.
And his shot was one you wouldn't even try in a game of H-O-R-S-E. But it kept the Tornadoes' season alive.
"Their guy made a great play," Dwyer coach Fred Ross said. "He drove to the basket and banked it in."
O'Rourke was twisting and turning when he lofted the shot that sailed high and seemed to hang for a moment like a burnt orange moon among the lights.
And then it rattled around the rim before sailing in.
"Regan saw a seam, slashed and made a great play," Allen Carden said. "You know, he hit a similar shot in a tournament in December and was called for walking. We'll gladly give that one back to take this one.
"It's kind of surreal to win and play in the state championship game. I told the guys it doesn't matter how you play at this point. All that matters is you win."