MADISON, Wis.—Wesley Matthews stood at the foul line having just drawn a 3-shot opportunity.
With one minute, 12 seconds left in regulation, Madison Memorial, the undefeated, top ranked team in Wisconsin, making their first trip to state in school history trailed Beloit, the school that has won more state titles than any other, 47-45. Matthews and the rest of the Spartans were looking for their third win over Beloit this season, having most recently prevailed 57-55 at Beloit.
Matthews calmly toed the line and lifted the first shot into the air. Swish! Again, Matthews stepped up to the line. Swish! A shooter in rhythm is a work of art. Matthews was in the midst of painting a masterpiece on this Thursday afternoon, dropping shot after shot into the net, keeping the Spartans' state title hopes alive through sheer will and a very hot hand.
After the second free throw, Memorial's coach, Steve Collins, called timeout to set the Spartans' defense. He knew what would happen next. Swish! Matthews drained the third, giving Memorial a 48-47 lead.
"He knew I was going to make it," Matthews said. "We practice free throws about three times at practice. You step up there and you don't even hear the crowd. You are just focused on the basket and you just hit them."
The night's tribulations were far from over, though. Beloit senior Kyle Weaver saw to that. Weaver, a friend of Matthews, shared plenty of smiles with the Memorial star during the game, but not now, not when Weaver just went coast-to-coast after a missed free throw, drew a foul on Matthews and converted a layup to tie the game at 49-49. With 14.2 seconds left, though, Weaver's free throw went off iron.
"I couldn't believe they called a foul at first," Matthews said. "That's what went through my head. But we didn't panic as a team. I was expecting him to make the free throw and we were going to have to win the game. When he missed the free throw, it was like, ‘OK, we've been in this situation countless times.' He missed the free throw, we got the rebound, called the timeout, everybody was just, ‘we are going to win this game.'"
After a timeout with 8.7 seconds left, Spartan senior guard Michael Nelson missed a 3-pointer and Matthews' 12-foot turnaround jumper to follow also drew iron, sending the game to overtime.
"The play that coach drew up, there are actually three options in there," Matthews said. "Mike just happened to be open first, he took the shot, all of us expected it go in…I ended up getting it. Kyle forced me to fade, it still felt good and it just rimmed out."
The Spartans thrived in the extra session, pulling out the 59-52 victory. Matthews hit 5 of 8 free throws in the final minute of play to close out a sterling 31-point performance, his highest scoring output ever for Memorial.
It was not the type of outburst that was expected from Matthews, not with a team as balanced as the Spartans. But Memorial desperately needed someone to take the reigns Thursday against a very athletic Beloit team that gave the Spartans everything they asked for and more.
"I feel it is just what needed to happen and I just happened to be on," said Matthews, who added that he scored 34 points in an AAU tournament last summer. "My teammates just started giving me the ball."
"Obviously Wesley is a great basketball player and a marquee basketball player," Collins said. "He came with prime time and he knew that we needed him and he stepped up and that's a credit to him and a credit to his basketball skill that he was able to do that."
The Purple Knights led 6-0 early and were still up 6-2 midway through the first quarter when Matthews started knocking down shots from all over the floor. In a two-minute span, Matthews gave Memorial its first lead, 11-10, hitting three consecutive 3-point shots.
Matthews, who had made just 15 triples all season before Thursday, drilled 5 of 7 from beyond the arc versus the Purple Knights, the fifth tying the game at 43-43 with 3:38 left in regulation.
"Fifteen, that's it," Matthews said. "I've taken plenty. They weren't very good 3s, but I've taken them."
"It was just one of those days when you are just feeling good," Matthews said. "I felt I had a pretty good warm up with my shot and they were open and I took them. I was feeling it and was in the rhythm and they just fell for me."
Whereas Matthews was in a zone, Weaver had a hard time finding the hoop. Matthews and Weaver matched their athletic 6-foot-5 frames against one another throughout the game, each getting the better of the other in turn, seemingly willing whatever shots they desired. Weaver, though, shot 5-for-20 while Matthews went 8-for-13.
With 2:50 left, though, Weaver stole a pass from Nelson and scored on the other end to give the Purple Knights a 45-43 edge. Matthews returned the favor, driving to the right of the lane, spinning to his right, then spinning back to his left to earn a layup to again tie the game.
Throughout the game, Matthews electrified with his ability to drive, and lit up the scoreboard with his deft touch on 3-point bombs. It was just enough magic to keep Memorial fighting another day.
"As a team you have to pick your poison a little bit," Beloit coach Shane Bautch said. "For Wes to come in, hit those threes, splash them the way he did, that is just tip your hat time. We thought, in this environment, we had to protect our paint. I thought Wes hit some contested threes—he got some open looks—but those guys are tough to guard when they can drive like that."
Memorial's win was its third straight playoff victory over a Big Eight Conference rival and thus the third straight time the Spartans had had to beat a team for the third time this season. Memorial handled Madison West and Madison La Follette last weekend to qualify for the state tournament. The Spartans (24-0) next face Milwaukee Vincent (22-3) in a semifinal at 6:35 p.m. Friday.