Jalen Womack had never before hit a halfcourt shot in a game. But as this one flew from his hands, it felt so good.
“I was thinking it was going in,” Womack said.
“It looked so good,” Federal Way coach Jerome Collins said.
Two inches more and the Eagles are celebrating 4A state championship bliss.
But it just missed and No. 1-ranked Gonzaga Prep capped its undefeated season with a come-from-behind title victory over Federal Way on Saturday in the Tacoma Dome, redeeming itself of a semifinal loss to Federal Way’s championship team two seasons ago.
But what a game.
And what a matchup – especially between two of the most electrifying juniors and biggest 2019 recruits in the state, Federal Way’s 6-foot-9 Jaden McDaniels and Gonzaga Prep’s 6-foot-7 Anton Watson.
They never backed down from each other, Watson smiling and all but licking his chops when McDaniels tried to break him down from the wing in the fourth quarter.
“He’s a good player, but I’m going to come out fighting,” said Watson, who scored a game-high 22 points a night after drilling the game-winning 3-pointer in overtime against No. 2 Richland in the semifinals. “I’m not going to back down from him, even though he’s a couple of inches taller than me and he has a few more offers than me. I’m going to come out fighting.”
Watson is committed to Gonzaga University and McDaniels has multiple Pac-12 and other NCAA Division I offers.
But McDaniels was plagued with foul trouble in the second half — and just when he was catching fire.
McDaniels scored 11 of his 14 points in the third quarter. He hit a 3-pointer and then a step back jumper, yelling “Let’s go!” as it hit nothing but net. He defended Watson, forced a miss and grabbed a rebound, coming a game after he scored 27 points in a semifinal win over Lewis and Clark.
His next bucket stretched Federal Way’s lead to 40-33.
But then he picked up his fourth foul when Watson got loose on a fastbreak and drew a three-point play on McDaniels, who then went to the bench with 1:05 left in the third quarter.
“I just thought critical fouls … just, man,” said a solemn Jerome Collins after. “I don’t know what to say. That changed the game.”
Especially since McDaniels had been affecting the game on both ends.
“He got into a flow. They couldn’t stop him,” Collins said. “We were scoring and for him to have to leave, not only does it impede the momentum, but the way he was in a flow and impacting on both ends of the floor and now he has to sit. It’s just hard to take because of the physicality that they were allowed to do on their end.”
But Federal Way did its best to sustain.
Marcus Austin scored 14 points and hit his second 3-pointer to put Federal Way (27-2) ahead 43-37 with about six minutes to play. Last year the point guard was playing at 1A Seattle Academy and Saturday he was playing under the bright lights of the 4A state title.
Gonzaga Prep followed with a 6-2 run and Collins subbed McDaniels back in with 4:32 to play.
Gonzaga Prep shortly after took its first lead since the end of the first quarter with a Liam Lloyd corner 3-pointer with 3:21 to play. Lloyd’s father, Tommy Lloyd, is the head assistant at Gonzaga University and Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s son also plays for Gonzaga Prep.
McDaniels tried to break Watson down the next possession. Watson got a stop, a rebound and then finished an and-1 the following possession.
It came one day after he took on Richland’s 7-foot-3 Riley Sorn – and twice dunked on him.
“This man? This man is the GOAT (greatest of all time),” a laughing Liam Lloyd said. “This man, I’m going to be with him a lot more years because he’s going to Gonzaga. I’m looking forward to seeing my brother go there and see him grow in his game.
“He’s a killer. He’s a killer.”
But what happened next was the backbreaker for Federal Way.
Watson missed the free throw, but Gonzaga Prep grabbed the offensive rebound and took off more clock. Then Jamaari Jones missed, but Gonzaga Prep got it back.
Then Watson just missed a 3-pointer, but Jones grabbed the board and after another miss, Sam Lockett got another offensive rebound. One possession – four Gonzaga Prep offensive rebounds.
“We got beat up on the boards pretty good the first 31 minutes,” Gonzaga Prep coach Matty McIntyre said. “They owed us a couple. But in all seriousness, the kids battled. They’re relentless.”
So then Watson was fouled and he hit two free throws with 25 seconds to play, giving the Bullpups a 52-47 lead.
But later Womack stepped into a deep 3 and hit with 1.9 seconds to go and the lead was cut to 53-52. Gonzaga Prep’s Jacob Parola missed the first and made the second of his ensuing two free throws before Collins drew up that final heave for Womack.
And Federal Way was that close to the upset.
“You know, it’s not always fair. Life isn’t fair,” said Collins, the 35-year coach who earned his 596th career win on Friday night and led the Eagles to their third championship appearance in the past four seasons. “But when you get knocked down you got to get up and you got to keep going. I used the example with my players, you go apply for a job, you’re qualified and then you find out someone else who got the job is less qualified. You can’t turn and go woe is me. You got to pick up the pieces and move forward.
“This is a life lesson, as I told them. Life is what you make it. You’re not always going to get the breaks, but you have to have a mindset to move forward and keep going, no matter what. That’s how you succeed.”
Federal Way had just five seniors, though. And Gonzaga Prep had just four.
So maybe there will be a McDaniels vs. Watson Round 2 next season.
“We’ll come back strong,” Womack said.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
No. 1 Gonzaga Prep
No. 3 Federal Way
Gonzaga Prep: Jacob Parola 7, Liam Lloyd 15, Jamaari Jones 8, Anton Watson 22, Devin Culp 2
Federal Way: Marcus Austin 14, Jalen Womack 8, Etan Collins 8, Jaden McDaniels 14, Jordan Magee 4, Isiah Hart 4