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Game Recap: McConnell Beats Buzzer, Knicks

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Snapshot:
PHILADELPHIA, PA - About four hours before the basketball found its way into the hands of T.J. McConnell with time winding down in Wednesday’s game at The Center, Brett Brown said he liked the way the 76ers had been playing with the second-year Arizona product manning the point guard spot.

The team, as Brown put it, has started to view McConnell as a bona fide starter.

Later in the evening, the undrafted second-year pro backed up that perception. With an Atlantic Division match-up against rival New York on the line, it was McConnell who kept the Sixers’ recent turnaround rolling.

As the final horn was blaring, McConnell connected on a 12-foot turnaround jumper along the baseline, sending the Sixers to a dramatic 98-97 triumph.

“It felt pretty good,” McConnell said afterwards, when asked if he thought the first game-winning shot of his career - at any level - had a chance of falling true. “I just tried to watch it go in.”

And go in it did.

The crowd went crazy. McConnell went crazy, making a sprint to the opposite end of the court that ended with a celebratory fist pump. His teammates went crazy, too, and mobbed him amidst the elation.

“This is a team victory,” McConnell yelled to fans inside the arena during his post-game interview on Comcast SportsNet, “and we couldn’t do it without each and every one of you!”

A missed 3-pointer from Kristaps Porzingis with just under seven seconds to go set the stage for McConnell’s heroics. Gerald Henderson chased down the loose rebound at the free throw line, brought the ball across midcourt, and subsequently cycled out to the sideline to give his teammates a chance to find open spots on the floor.

Henderson decided to hand the ball off to Ersan Ilyasova, who was running to the top of the arc. Ilyasova rapidly fired a touch pass to McConnell, free on the strongside baseline.

Then, in the span of two seconds, McConnell dribbled at Carmelo Anthony, twirled roughly 180 degrees to his left, and fired a fadeaway as time expired.

Joyous pandemonium ensued.

“I just ran to an open spot,” said McConnell, who expected Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ leading scorer this season, to get the game-winning attempt. “When the ball was coming at me, I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ I tried to make a lay-up. Carmelo cut me off. I just turned around and shot the shot.”

That McConnell was able to fake out a nine-time All-Star six inches taller than him made his clinching deposit possible.

“I saw the baseline, it was pretty open,” McConnell said. “I did a spin move. I thought he was going to be in my face when I shot it, and I turned around and no one was there. It was pretty much uncontested.”

Following Porzingis’ errant perimeter heave, which, if good, would have upped New York’s margin to four points, the Sixers swiftly hurried back the other way in transition. Brown opted not to call a timeout, having reviewed various contingency scenarios with his team moments earlier during a stop in the action.

“We talked about, right when they’re walking out on the court, if you have something, like a clear path, take it,” said Brown. “It ended up with Gerald. He pushed the ball. It was a broken play, and T.J. ended up the recipient of a broken gym, a busted gym, but that is his shot. I think the chaos actually produced something probably more open.”

McConnell ended the evening with eight points (4-6 fg), six rebounds, seven assists, and two steals. Wednesday’s start was his fifth in a row, and sixth overall this campaign. The Sixers have lost only once with him serving in such a capacity.

Joel Embiid paced the Sixers with 21 points (7-20 fg). He also hauled in a career-best 14 rebounds, another team-high total Wednesday.

“Playoff time baby!,” the rookie joked, following his club’s fourth win in five contests. “We just have to take it step-by-step, and game-by-game, to get better.”

Despite ultimately overcoming New York, the Sixers, for all intents and purposes, likely wouldn’t have been in position to pull off their comeback if not for Embiid’s efforts in crunch time.

With New York ahead 10 points, 93-83, Embiid proceeded to score eight of the Sixers’ 15 points in the final two and a half minutes of regulation. Of particular importance were the straightaway bank shot 3-pointer and lay-up he generated on back-to-back possessions that brought the Sixers within one, 95-94, with 51.8 seconds left.

Derrick Rose answered Embiid’s 2-pointer with a mid-range jumpshot; however, the former MVP, who skipped Monday’s game against New Orleans and was then fined, committed a noteworthy foul, sending Henderson to the line for a pair of critical free throws. The Duke product hit both, making the score 97-96. Porzingis’ failed 3-point attempt occurred on the Knicks’ next offensive set.

“It feels great,” Embiid said about Wednesday’s win. “It gives us a lot of confidence going forward. For T.J. to hit that big shot, for us to be down 10 with two minutes left, that’s been a problem for us. That gives us a lot of confidence.”

Midway through Wednesday’s second quarter, the Sixers seemed to be in trouble. They trailed by 17 points, and were struggling to put the ball in the basket.

The Sixers used a 13-3 run to close within five points, 52-47, at the break. Following intermission, they even managed to build up a four-point edge by the six and a half minute mark of the third quarter.

The Knicks, though, reclaimed control, 75-71, entering the fourth frame, and began the period with a 9-0 blitz. The surge swiftly boosted the visitors’ cushion to 13 points.

Armed with an increasingly successful defense (the Sixers’ defensive rating of 104.1 points allowed per 100 possessions since December ranks fifth overall in the NBA), the Sixers clamped down when it mattered most. They held New York scoreless on seven consecutive possessions, and kept Anthony, who netted a game-high 28 points, off the scoreboard for the entire fourth quarter.

Brown said his players have taken pride in their defensive progress.

“Our team has really responded to that. We are among the East, points per possession, one of the better defensive teams. Ultimately, that’s who we are.”

Wednesday, they were also a clutch team, a resilient team that, one that, albeit young, seems to be learning more and more about what it takes to win.

“There’s nothing like wins to boost our confidence,” Brown said.

The proof has been revealed in the results.

Embiid’s double-double Wednesday was his rookie-class leading seventh of the season. Fellow big man Nerlens Noel registered 13 points and eight rebounds in a reserve role.

Sixers Social:
The biggest play of the night came at the last possible moment. Here it is:

Up Next:
The Sixers will finish a brief two-game stint at The Center Friday with a 7:00 PM EST pairing versus Charlotte. The Hornets, as of Wednesday, were clinging to a spot among the top eight in the Eastern Conference, tied for sixth place with resurgent Washington and up-and-coming Milwaukee. Chicago, meanwhile, was nipping right on Charlotte’s heels. In the midst of a five-game road trip, the Hornets have dropped five of their last six outings. They had previously been a season-best five games above the .500 mark.