HIDALGO – How much did this mean to Mike Harris?
His put-back on a Will Conroy miss with 8.0 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter wound up being the difference in a 99-98 victory over Austin in Game 3 of a best-of-3 NBA D-League semifinal series. The Vipers’ normally calm and collected superstar unleashed a swell of emotion after that.
When the final buzzer sounded, Harris was downright giddy. Harris shared high-fives with some of the 4,826 fans in attendance at State Farm Arena and then headed to midcourt to embrace Conroy, who was hoisting the game ball for all to see.
“My goal from day one here was to win a championship,” Harris said. “In my head, that was the only thing. Anything less than that, I would have been short (of my goal). We knew this was going to be a dogfight all three games.”
The Vipers are headed to the league’s best-of-3 championship series in their first-ever playoff appearance. The Vipers will face Tulsa in the finals. Tentative dates have been set for the series. Game 1 will be Sunday at Tulsa. Games 2 and 3 will be Tuesday and Thursday at State Farm Arena.
Harris finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds, both team-highs. Harris is on assignment from the Houston Rockets, but had played 34 regular season games for the Vipers. The Rockets assigned him the day of Game 3 of the Vipers’ best-of-3 first-round series against Reno on April 13. He scored 45 points that night. On Monday, he was named the league MVP.
The Vipers set up the winning score after Austin’s Marcus Williams finished a 3-point play that gave the Toros a 98-97 lead with 23.3 seconds. The Vipers called time out and set up the winning play.
Conroy drove hard to the basket on a pick-and-roll. Conroy said he just wanted to get the ball close to the rim because he expected Harris to go strong in case he missed the shot.
“I knew Will was going to attack the basket,” Harris said. “He did a good job of finding me all night. I was fortunate enough that (the ball) fell right into my hands. The only thing I could think about was making a shot after that.”
Conroy said: “I knew that if I got it around the rim, I’d let him go and get it.”
After Harris’ shot, there was plenty of work to do. Curtis Jerrells, who had 29 points and had made big shots down the stretch, drove to the basket and his shot rattled out with 1.7 seconds left. He was then whistled for a charge after he collided with Craig Winder, who had a huge second half.
“I thought he was going to call a foul on me,” Winder said. “On a play like that, it’s usually a no call.”
Winder finished with 18 points on 7 of 18 shooting after making 1 of 7 and six points in the first half. His energy gave the Vipers a spark after they had squandered their 49-44 halftime lead by allowing the Toros to go on a 10-0 run in the first two minutes of the third quarter.
“Craig is a real warrior,” Vipers coach Chris Finch said. “I thought his energy in the second half really sparked us. He’s had that in him all season.”
Winder redeemed himself after his foul on Curtis Jerrells on an inbounds pass in the final seconds led to free throws that turned out to be the difference in Game 1.
The Vipers led 87-76 at the 8:54 mark of the fourth quarter before the Toros made a final charge, going on a 19-4 run that put them in the lead, 95-91 with 2:00 left. Antonio Anderson, Harris and Winder made consecutive baskets to put the Vipers in the lead, 97-95.
“I thought we played really smart at the end of the game,” Finch said. “We hadn’t really been doing that. We played smart and tough. We were playing a little wild in the last few minutes, but it was a heck of a series. Two of the games came down to the last possession.”
David Hinojosa covers the Rio Grande Valley Vipers for Valley Freedom Newspapers. You can reach him at (956) 683-4442.