CADILLAC — Jack Stefanski stood at the free throw line and stared at the rim with only one-tenth of a second remaining in the state quarterfinals.
His Frankfort Panthers (20-5) down two points to Big Rapids Crossroads Academy (23-2), it was hard to ignore the situation and the implications of the next two shots.
Make them and send the game to overtime, extending the Panthers chances of making it to the Breslin Center. Miss them and fall just short of their first trip back to the Final Four since 2014.
Stefanski made the first shot with ease, but it was the second shot that really mattered. The Cougars called a timeout to ice the sophomore, extending what already seemed like a lifetime at the stripe for No. 0.
The Cougar faithful erupted into a riot of cheers as Stefanski clanked the ball off the right side of the rim, only to be interrupted by a piercing whistle. For a split second the Cougars believed they were Breslin bound, but Crossroads had committed a lane violation.
Stefanski made the next shot and sent the quarterfinal to overtime, where senior Ethan Ness took over, making 5-of-6 free throws in the overtime period to clinch a Division 4 spot at Breslin for the Panthers with a 53-51 win.
"Dan (Loney) teaches confidence to me, so if I miss one I know I am never going to miss two free throws in a row," Stefanski said. "I wasn't shooting well tonight, but I just had to come up clutch. I was a bit nervous but just had to stay calm, cool and collected and after the second shot I knew I was going to make the third one.
"I sunk it, that is all I can do."
The unlikely sequence gave the Panthers a huge momentum boost that they took into extra time and closed out the Cougars with early defense and free throw shooting.
Frankfort entered overtime in the double bonus and the free throws started after they forced back-to-back turnovers and took a three-point lead. A missed 3-pointer and one of six missed free throws from junior Isaac Slomp, who finished with 12 points, set the Cougars too far back with only 36 seconds to play.
Crossroads' Britton Angell, who totaled 29 points and played outstanding, went on to make two quick 3-pointers with under 20 seconds left, but it wasn't enough to eclipse the eight-point lead the Panthers built off free throws.
"What more could you ask of a quarterfinal?" Crossroads head coach Julian Castillo said. "It was a great heavyweight battle where you thought somebody won, then it was tied. You have to embrace these moments and enjoy them no matter which way they go. It is not easy being on the bad end of it but when you look at it all in perspective it was a beautiful game."
Frankfort jumped out to a quick nine-point lead in the first quarter as Stefankski hit a couple of threes, with Jack Reznich adding one in between. The Cougars fought back throughout the second, taking their first lead of the game (27-25) as time expired in the first half off a Angell coast-to-coast layup.
The Panthers struggled mightily in the third, only scoring three points in eight minutes of action, but came back with a vengeance in the fourth.
The Cougars led 39-28 after their first bucket in the fourth, but the Panthers locked down and held them scoreless over the next five minutes.
Stefanski and Newbold orchestrated the 9-0 run that ensued. They each knocked down a couple of free throws, with Stefanski hitting a layup and Newbold nailing a 3-pointer to cut the lead to two.
Newbold went on to hit another critical 3-pointer with 41 seconds left to set up the final free throws for Stefanski.
"I don't think we can cut it closer, but once we got that lane violation I knew Jack would hit that third free throw," Panthers head coach Dan Loney said. "That is the kind of player that he is, he wants the ball and you can see that out there. When the game gets tight, Jack wants the ball. As a sophomore, I look at him as a coach and couldn't be more happy. A kid like that is job security."
The Panthers are making their way back to the Breslin Center in East Lansing for the first time in five years and this moment was not what the Frankfort faithful had in mind to start the season.
"Everybody thought we were rebuilding this year and us as a coaching staff didn't want to set expectations so we never really talked about it," Loney said. "As a coaching staff we said we weren't rebuilding, we were reloading. These kids have been in the program and Reggie Manville set the expectations for seven years straight and these kids saw that environment, worked toward it and earned this."
Stefanski led the Panthers with 28 points. Newbold scored 13 points with 10 of them coming in the fourth quarter and overtime. Ness hit five of his six points in the overtime period and Reznich added six for the Panthers.
Frankfort will head to East Lansing to face off with Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (22-3) on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. as the fourth Northwest Conference team to make it to the Final Four in the last three years.