By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Stan Gatlin arrived on the campus of Brighton High School dressed for success. In his argyle sweater vest and khakis, Gatlin sported his new school’s colors with his wife Demeka and son Taelyr by his side.
Gatlin had a section of the bleachers in the Brighton Gymnasium filled with potential Cardinal Basketball players. That day he promised the young men in the stands Brighton Basketball will reach new heights never seen before.
Tonight those words came to fruition in the same location they were uttered. When Gatlin’s junior forward Aaron Alston received a pass from senior guard Ethan Bell, Alston made the layup to give Brighton a 64-63 lead over the Bolton Wildcats.
Bolton had one more shot with 2.7 seconds remaining in the Region 7-3A Tournament Semifinal contest. When the Wildcats missed a three-point shot at the buzzer, the Brighton Gymnasium erupted and Gatlin pumped his fist in the air in victory.
“It’s just a big moment for Brighton High School, Brighton Basketball,” Alston said. “The boys’ team has never been this far. We just wanted to come out here and make history.”
The Cardinals made history with the 64-63 win. Brighton advances to Thursday night’s Region 7-3A championship game for the first time. The Bolton victory also guaranteed Brighton’s first appearance in Sub-State to be played Monday night against a Region 8-3A opponent.
“We haven’t loss a game here,” Gatlin noted. “That’s very hard to do against teams like Bolton, Bartlett and Cordova or Arlington. Playing on your home court against those types of team, it’s hard to keep that streak alive.
“But our guys had enough intestinal fortitude to keep pushing,” he continued. “I told them before the game, ‘Either you’re going to make history or be history.’ They understood. ‘If we win tonight, it will be our 20th win and We’ll be in Sub-State. Nobody else has done it.’ They wanted to make history.”
Six Cardinals saw the floor in the historic victory, Alston, Bell, Taelyr Gatlin, Jordan Johnson, Alex Malone and Zach Lewis.
The well-rested and motivated Cardinals jumped out to a 40-24 halftime lead. The highlight of the first half was Alston’s two-hand power slam that made the score 36-18 in the second quarter.
Lewis was the offensive star of the first half with 12 points in the second period alone. Brighton had a 16-point advantage at the break.
The Wildcats clawed back in the third quarter outscoring Brighton 21-12 to make the score 52-45 in favor of the Cardinals going into the fourth quarter.
“That team has a lot of fight in them,” Coach Gatlin said. “They’re well coached. They may have had a rough patch there in the beginning, but tourney time they’ve been playing good ball. They’ve got some upsets. Hats off to them. They showed that they’re not chumps. They have like nine seniors on that team. They played their hearts out. And I congratulate them on their tough effort.
“The second half we made a lot of dumb decisions,” he acknowledged. “To be a championship caliber team you have to win in spite of those mistakes. I think we showed that tonight. We made some good decisions there at the end to keep fighting.”
At the 5:18 mark of the fourth quarter Bolton finally tied the game at 54-54. After a pair of Bell foul shots regained the lead for Brighton at 56-54, the Wildcats went on a 7-0 run to take a 61-56 lead.
“We came out strong,” Alston recalled. “I guess we got comfortable with the lead. We started to lose focus.
“We got our focus back when Coach called a timeout and told us to get back into it,” he added.
It was the senior Bell who stopped Bolton’s momentum on the court when he drained a three-pointer from the top of the key. The score was 61-60 when Lewis made a free throw.
Taelyr put Brighton ahead 62-61 moments later when he drove to the rim for a layup. The Wildcats jumped back ahead 63-62 with a bucket.
Bolton used pressure defense and traps all over the Brighton Gymnasium court to get back into the game and take the lead. The Wildcats performed another defensive stop that looked like it would lock up the victory.
Bolton tried to run out the clock forcing Brighton to foul. The Wildcats went to the line for a one-and-one situation with 14.6 seconds left.
Bolton missed and Brighton grabbed the rebound. With no timeouts left, the Cardinals raced up the court. Bell found himself with the ball.
He located Alston in the lane.
“Make the shot,” Alston said crossed his mind.
The forward powered up to the rim and made the layup with 2.7 seconds left.
“I did it,” Alston recalled. “I did it.”
Now the Cardinals needed one more stop to make history.
“Don’t foul and just hope for a miss,” Alston said was the mindset coming out of the timeout.
Bolton’s final shot missed.
“We reached the championship,” Alston said.
As Gatlin rejoiced, the veteran coach reflected on the historic moment.
“I’m just thankful I was able to keep my promise to those guys,” he concluded. “For those who stuck around, they’re reaping the benefits. Whatever I said that day, it’s coming to fruition. I’m just thankful I can be a part and impact their lives in a positive way. I’m thankful for that opportunity.”