With 13 seconds remaining, McKenzie's 6-8 senior center Ben Austin threw down a monster slam, then, seconds later, swatted an East Robertson shot into the bleachers.
With 6:26 left in the second, Austin had scored his one-thousandth career point at the free throw line.
When the horn sounded with fewer than 10 seconds left in the game, and McKenzie holding an ominous 13-point advantage over the Indians, MHS coach John Wilkins subbed for his senior, allowing him the ovation he deserved.
Austin triumphantly raised his arms as he strode to the bench. And why not? He finished with 27 points and the Rebels secured a 69-57 sub-state victory, a victory that propelled them to the state tournament for the first time since 1998. The McKenzie fans at Bethel's Crisp Arena erupted with euphoria as the final horn sounded.
This success had been building for a long time, and Wilkins seemed relieved to see this come to fruition.
"Obviously, we've had some success here, but we were looking to take that next step," he said. "This year we were able to take a couple of those steps. I knew we had a chance this year, and I can't say enough about these kids."
East Robertson, the 10th-ranked team in Class A, presented a formidable challenge, but McKenzie was equal to it from the outset. And when the Rebels needed to turn up the steam, they pulled away from the Tribe with a second-half effort. Nate Whitsell led the charge. He had 18 of his 22 points in the second half, including two critical triples in the third frame.
"Nate was big for us tonight," said Wilkins. "When they keyed on Ben, it opened things up for Nate."
Not to be outdone, Ben Austin was able to maneuver under the basket for some key buckets. He also got to the line nine times, hitting seven.
"We had great senior leadership and made good decisions," Wilkins said. "The kids deserve this, the school deserves this, and the community deserves this. This was just a great win for us."
McKenzie trailed briefly in the first, but was able to push the lead to seven points or so in the second frame and never relinquished control. That didn't mean East Robertson quit. The Indians battled to the wire. They trimmed a 13-point lead to five mid-way in the third. Davion Shannon drained a three, followed by Taylor Grove's three-point play and McKenzie was feeling the pressure.
The Rebels pushed the lead back to nine by quarter's end, 50-41. As the fourth began, Whitsell and Austin combined to push the cushion back to 13. Whitsell's bucket with 1:46 to play gave McKenzie it's largest lead, 65-51. East Robertson never got closer than 10 the rest of the way.
Groves led the Indians, 25-6, with 24 points. Shannon tallied 15.
Lucas King had 10 points for the Rebels, who are now 28-3.
McKenzie was scheduled to find out who and when it will be playing in the first round of the state tournament Tuesday evening during the TSSAA draw at Middle Tennessee State's Murphy Center. That information was not available as of press time.
State tournament action begins today (Wednesday, March 6) at MTSU.