In its first game of the Tyronn Lue Tournament of Champions on Thursday, the Mexico varsity boys basketball team, 8-4 overall, was leading by three in overtime when Riverview Gardens’ Schuyler Pimentel hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 73-73 with just under two and a half minutes to play.

That’s when the Bulldogs Jai Lawson took control by scoring the Bulldogs final five points starting at 2:16 when he split a pair of free throws to put his team up by one. When Pimentel then posted a field goal to give Riverview, 2-12 overall, a 75-74 advantage, not only did Lawson return the favor by doing the same, he also connected twice from the charity stripe with 5.8 seconds remaining to give Mexico a 78-75 lead.

Riverview did have one last trick up its sleeve in the form of Tavon Graham stepping to the free throw line with 0.7 left on the clock, and when he made the first shot and purposely missed the second, no one will ever know if that was the right strategy because his team was called for a lane violation. One long pass down court later that didn’t really connect with anyone, but also didn’t go out of bounds or prove worthy of a final foul call, and this extra session tournament contest was finally in the books.

“I thought the guys found a way to win down the stretch. At the end of overtime we just wanted to run our offense, find an open look and attack the basket. Jai got an open look, made the layup and then we fouled them,” said coach Darren Pappas. “Luckily he made the first, missed the second and we were able to pull it out. In overtime we showed a lot of heart. This was just a slugfest.”

The overtime actually began for the Bulldogs with a basket by J’Marquay McGruder and Matthew Huffman making 1-of-2 free throws. Mexico was also fortunate that Riverview got called for traveling on the very next possession after Lawson’s final score, but the end of regulation was a much different story that consisted of far too many final triple try’s until Graham finally connected to tie the contest at 70-70 just as time expired.

“There was a lot of back and forth in this game. If we could have hit more free throws, this game wouldn’t have been as close, but if we had kept (Riverview’s Christopher Robinson) and a few other guys off the glass, they had five or six chances to hit that final three-pointer to send the game into overtime. We’ve got to do a better job of executing down the stretch defensively in close games.”

The fourth started with the Bulldogs trailing 55-52, but they quickly picked up the pace because of the of the constant drives to the hole by Cameron Holman, who made it a 60-59 game at 3:10 by making consecutive shots from the charity stripe. Tyler Spargo was also raining jump shots that session, including one at 2:01 that put Mexico in the driver’s seat 63-60 at 2:01 prior to his teammates finishing the quarter by going 5-for-10 from the free throw line.

“The difference tonight was that Mexico shot a lot of free throws. They also did some really good things down the stretch while we missed several key layups,” said Riverview head coach Milton Stith. “We knew we wanted to limit turnovers, so we drew up a couple plays designed to create some on-ball pick-and-rolls. We also played with a little more poised and focused on really protecting the basketball. We hit a couple big three pointers and our goal was to settle our guys down just a little bit.”

This contest was so even throughout Mexico went to halftime up 33-30 after Riverview outscored it 14-12 in the first thanks to six points by Jaylen Watts, who was one of four players to foul out for the team in this game. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, countered with four points from McGruder, Lawson and Spargo both hit a three-pointer and Huffman added a basket.

“We’ve got four of our best players out, two for injuries, two for grades, but we knew when we came in that we wanted to pressure the ball. That was first and foremost for us,” Stith said. “We intended to trap the corners, so we were aware this was going to be an aggressive game. The officials let us know early to guard with our legs and not our hands, so we expected to get called for a lot of fouls. But, even though we came up short, our guys played hard.

It was the third that saw Mexico greatest threat to take control of this contest by jumping out to advantages of 42-36 at 5:35 and 48-39 at 3:59. Riverview saw the handwriting on the wall and made the necessary adjustments to keep from getting left behind, though, halting that progress to 50-46 at 2:19 before reclaiming the lead at 53-50 at :41.2 and 55-52 at :13.5.

“This was a great game and you have to take your hats off to Mexico. They’re a really good team who are well coached and execute well,” saids Stith. “They move the ball well and this is a solid victory for them. We love coming out here. This is a great experience, even if we didn’t get the victory.”

In the earlier game on Thursday Fort Zumwalt South played Glendale. Over the next two days these four teams will play each other in a round robin format with competition coming to a close Saturday afternoon.

“Our games on Friday and Saturday are going to be just as tough. We knew that going in. All three teams are very good teams,” Pappas said. “Each one can do some different things, so hopefully we can look at the film tonight and try and learn from those mistakes. I think we have to cut down on our turnovers and capitalize more on our opponents turnovers and keep winning the rebounding battle.”