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Firebirds Lose Heartbreaker in Overtime, 120-117

The Raleigh Firebirds played their first game of the 2022 TBL season on March 4th, with 150 people attending in-person. While it would have been great to open up the season with a roaring victory, the Firebirds home-owner ended in miserable defeat.

Pregame shoot arounds and stretching went on for what seems like an eternity, as the game clock ticked down closer and closer to 7 PM. The music was blasting in the John Chavis Memorial Park Basketball Gym, with songs from all kinds of rap artists. The team the Firebirds were facing was the Carolina Coyotes, based in Columbia, South Carolina. The Firebirds went with a starting five of Brock Young, Daequon Antoine, Kenny Collins (the player of the night), Darius Leonard, and Desmond Jackson. The Firebirds' jerseys didn't have their own names on them, but they had the word "Equality" written on top.

At first, it didn't seem as though the game was close at all. Immediately the Coyotes jumped out to a 12-0 lead, with the Firebirds' scoring drought ending as Leonard made the first basket of the night. There just wasn't enough hustle on the Firebirds end of the spectrum, and it showed in their defense and passing. To no fault of their own, it seemed as though there was a lid on the rim, and their shots just wouldn't go through the net. Halfway through the first quarter the score was 18-4 in favor of the Coyotes, and at the end of the first, it was 31-15. There were a few highlights throughout the quarter, but the most important aspects of the game were what Coach Bob MacKinnion preached in the huddle; run back on defense, and always hustle. He also told his team, "{We're} only switching man assignments on ball screens."

In the second quarter, Collins hit a three 11 seconds in, giving the crowd something to cheer for. Unfortunately, the Coyotes kept making their shots, expanding their lead to 16 points. By halftime, the score was 62-44, an 18-point lead for the Coyotes. The Firebirds were seriously struggling, and if something didn't change soon, the blowout would get out of hand.

Fortunately, this would not be the case. Coach MacKinnion talked to his players in the locker room, and according to Young, "He said, 'Slow it down. Be patient on offense, let the ball work, and play D.' We didn't get those stops in the first, so we came out trying to get stops." Young had 12 points in the first half, and received the lion share of minutes at the point guard position (39 minutes) while Marques Sumner only played 15 minutes. There aren't any seemingly huge differences between Sumner and Young; both are around the same weight and height, and play the same way; yet Young kept knocking down his shots, while Sumner kept getting knocked down by Coyotes players. There were a few moments where I winced in pain after watching him get elbowed in the face yet again (this happened at least three times).

The Firebirds started the 2nd half with a renewed energy, and cut the Coyotes' 18-point lead to 10 points. They were playing together, as a team, with great defense and hustle. There were still many careless turnovers made by the Firebirds, but they were playing much better basketball then they did in the first half.

Chris Chaney, one of the Firebirds' forwards, did not have a great third quarter. Chaney was first inserted into the game in the second quarter, and while he helped defensively, he couldn't get into a groove, going 0 for 3 from the field. In the third quarter, he picked up three fouls within the span of a minute and a half, giving him four for the game. Luckily, despite the refs never giving Chaney the benefit of the doubt (I know I saw him taking charges; there's now way they were blocking fouls!), the third quarter ended on a positive note, with Brock Young hitting a very high arcing three to close the deficit to 8 points.

To begin the fourth quarter, Young hit a three, which was followed up by a layup from McClain. The score was now 90-85, and shortly after, Antoine would nail two huge threes. With 4 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Firebirds were only down by one point, 97-96. Another huge three from Collins did the trick, making the score 99-97. The Firebirds finally had the lead they'd been chasing throughout the entire game.

The game kept going back and forth between teams, each trying to gain as large of an advantage as they could to put the game away. McClain had a huge put-back dunk, which made everyone in the crowd roar. McClain was a huge energy booster for the squad, with huge dunks, blocks, and standing up for his teammates (and himself). With around three minutes left, McClain was pushed by a Coyotes player, and had to be separated from him. When asked what he said to the player postgame, McClain replied, "Your playing well. Don't push me." McClain would finish the game with one of the best stat lines on the team: 18 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, a steal, and a block while shooting 57.1% from the field.

Jackson had a huge block on defense, leading to a Collins layup with two minutes left. The The suspense was even worse at the free throw line, where Jackson would shoot 2 for 11 from the free throw line, something that I'm sure will improve as the season goes on. Besides, that wasn't even the worst shooting performance of the night; the Coyotes' team captain, Robert Colon. made one of his 12 threes, which translates to 8.3%. Yikes. Jackson would finish the game with a solid 12 points and 10 rebounds.

With 25 seconds left on the clock, the Firebirds had the ball, and were up 106-103. Brock Young dribbled the ball at the top of the court, trying to stall as much as he could. Once the shot clock got down into single digits, he began his move, slicing through defenders into the lane. From there, with the defense focused on him, he casually threw a behind the back pass to Jackson, right underneath the basket. Unfortunately, the defense recovered and the layup was blocked, giving the Coyotes the ball. With 6.9 seconds left in the game, they hit a three to tie the game at 106.

The Firebirds had one last chance to win the game, but Young missed his mid-range jump shot. McClain got the rebound and put up a layup at a very awkward angle; but it still looked like it was good. Unfortunately, it rimmed out, and the buzzer sounded before the Firebirds could get off another shot. The game headed into overtime.

The game continued to stay close, but with 1:11 left in OT, the Firebirds called a timeout, down 115-110. On the inbounds play out of the timeout, the in-bounder lobbed the ball up super high, and McClain threw it down with authority, to bring the game within three points. On the other end, the Firebirds played phenomenal defense, forcing a shot clock violation. Young then made yet another three-pointer to tie the game at 115 with 25 seconds left. The Coyotes called timeout.

To win the game, the Firebirds had to make a defensive stop, and then score. This is the part where the word "heartbreaker," is necessary, as the refs completely robbed the Firebirds of this game. There were multiple other calls throughout the game that I disagreed with, but I'm not a trained referee. I could have been mistaken. However, these last two calls were egregious, and cost the Firebirds their home opener. The first was that when a Coyotes player scored with 5.4 seconds left, his foot was clearly on the three-point line. Yet, the refs still called this a three, and the score was 118-115.

Even if we want to debate whether the player's foot was on the line, this wasn't a TBL three-pointer. TBL uses the NBA three-point line, and because the John Chavis Memorial Park Gym doesn't have an NBA three-point line, it's normally taped down so the players know where they have to shoot from. However, the people working at John Chavis wouldn't let the Firebirds put down the tape for the NBA three-point line, because apparently it would ruin the warranty they had with whoever made the floor. Really? Tape? "Yeah definitely," said Young when asked if the three-point line being closer in affected his game. "Because we've been practicing the NBA three, they were calling twos that were threes."

When asked when the Firebirds could put tape on the gym floor, they were told in roughly a month, which won't work for their home games. Hopefully a solution can be found quickly. In the meantime, the Firebirds are playing on a high school three-point line. After the refs called the Coyotes' shot a three, Collins hit another three on offense to tie the game; but the referees called it a two. What?

The Firebirds fouled, the Coyotes made two free throws, and a desperation shot with 0.9 seconds from Young was blocked, making the final score 120-117. Yes, the Firebirds didn't play great in the first half, but to me, they just proved they are a second half team. In this case, the heartbreaker isn't that the team lost (losses happen); the heartbreakers are Matt Wolf, Joshua Bowman, and S. Chase Furlough. However, instead of stealing hearts, they stole points from the Firebirds.

Despite my less then stellar review of the refs, the players were very mature about the game, and took responsibility for their play. "I was off man," said Brock Young, which honestly scared me for a second, considering he had 32 points and 5 assists on decent shooting splits. "I got going in the second half, but it was a rough game." Young didn't blame the refs for the loss , saying, "You can't blame the refs. We did make some late game bad decisions and turnovers, and you can't blame the refs, you know?"

"I wish we would have won," said rookie James McKelvin when asked about his first game as a Firebird. "That's it. I'm about dubs man. We've got to put out more energy. Energy lost us the game.

Luckily, the Firebirds have a chance to make up for their loss today, as they play the Tallahassee Southern Kings today, at 4 PM. This game will be the Firebirds Health Awareness game, where they bring support and awareness to different health initiatives, like Mental Health, Autism Awareness, Heart Health, and Cancer Research. If you get the chance, make sure you buy a ticket to go watch the Firebirds; it's a great experience, and well worth it!

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