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Instant classic: No. 2 Auburn spoils No. 1 Garfield's undefeated season, repeat WIAA Class 3A title hopes in overtime thriller

Dae'Kwon Watson, Tyrell Nichols deliver big plays in overtime as the long awaited rematch between the state's top two Class 3A powers lived up to the hype.

TACOMA, Wash. — Maleek Arington cracked a smile when asked about his teammate, junior Tyrell Nichols’ pump fake and go-ahead 3-pointer with 45 seconds left in overtime, moments after subbing into the game for the first time.

“That was the biggest shot ever and I’m proud of him, man,” Arington said.

And Dae’Kwon Watson’s pivotal OT charge in the final seconds?

“Ay,” Arington said, collecting his thoughts, “it was the biggest charge ever, man.”

There were a lot of “biggest and best-evers” in Thursday morning’s Class 3A state quarterfinal clash between 3A giants Garfield and Auburn — a matchup between teams that appeared to be on a crash course to meet in the championship game before the second-seeded Trojans were upset by No. 7 Mt. Spokane in the regional round.

The Trojans dealt Garfield its first loss of the season, 64-60 in overtime, in a rematch between the top two teams in virtually every ranking, poll or statistical measurement, turning a Thursday morning in the Tacoma Dome into an overtime instant classic befitting of a Saturday night championship showdown.

They needed every bit of Watson’s 22-point, 10-rebound, three assist performance. His four consecutive made free throws in the final 30 seconds to hold the Bulldogs off — the final two after he stepped in to take a charge as Garfield’s Raphiel Justice rose up for a potentially game-tying layup with 11 seconds left.

Kaden Hansen and Tre Blassingame — Auburn’s 2021 and 2022 3A NPSL MVPs — watched the suspense unfold from the bench, both having fouled out in the fourth quarter and overtime, respectively.

“It’s a mental game,” Watson said. “We just had to sit down, lock in, even though we were missing our two key players, we just had to sit down, lock in and focus on what we needed to do.”

The win advances Auburn to Friday’s state semifinal, where it will play No. 5 Seattle Prep, which beat No. 14 Eastside Catholic in the 9 a.m. game Thursday morning. Garfield (22-1) faces Eastside Catholic at 9 a.m. Friday for a chance to play in the fourth place game.

Garfield took the led in the second quarter and stayed ahead until Blassingame hit two free throws with 0.8 seconds left to tie the game at 53-53. Jaylin Stewart caught a full-court baseline inbound heave and got a turnaround jump shot off before the regulation buzzer, but it missed, sending the game to overtime.

The much-bigger Bulldogs won the first half rebound advantage, and built on its two-point halftime lead despite senior guard and Washington commit Koren Johnson leaving the game after a hard fall in the first half with what Garfield coach Jay Von Nickens said was a dislocated shoulder.

It didn’t much matter, as the Bulldogs found contributions elsewhere. Fifth-year senior Kenzel Massey, a transfer from Lakes who won an eligibility case and was cleared to suit up midseason, hit 4 of 6 3-point attempts for 17 points, pulled down seven rebounds and had two key third quarter blocks off the bench.

After the game, Nickens, bemoaned the free throw discrepancy. Auburn shot 29 to Garfield’s 16.

He also joined a vocal chorus of chatter bemoaning a tournament format that allowed for the two top seeds to face off in quarterfinals.

“I think they need to fix the way the seeding was,” Nickens said. “I wasn’t a part of that process, but I just know you’ve got teams like that, they deserve to play in the evening. Both teams.”

Nickens was first an interim head coach at Garfield in 2018-19, when his current seniors were freshman. That year, Garfield missed the playoffs — a blip in a multi-year title run under head coach Brandon Roy.

After Johnson, a first team all state selection as a sophomore in the Bulldogs’ 2020 state title run, transferred home after a brief stint at national power Wasatch Academy in Utah, Nickens called this season his group’s “last dance,” an homage to the ESPN docuseries on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

“It’s been exciting to watch these guys grow and develop from young boys to becoming, some of them men, they’re 18,” Nickens said. “Body all filled out, mustache, voice is a little deeper.”

For Auburn, Thursday’s win completed a goal set Dec. 22 when Garfield beat the Trojans. But coach Ryan Hansen’s postgame message made it clear: the celebration must be quick.

“We’re not done,” Arington said. “We didn’t come here just to beat them. We came here for one thing.”