The ball was floating toward the rim, and Connor McGuire realized it wasn’t going into the basket. Once his fears were confirmed, with the ball bouncing harmlessly off the rim, the Gardiner center let the hours he’s spent under and around the basket take over from there.

“I knew that somebody had to get the rebound,” he said. “I just kind of went with my instincts.”

McGuire grabbed the rebound of a potential game-deciding free throw and banked it in with 4 seconds remaining, lifting the Tigers to a stunning 82-80 victory over Cony on their home court Thursday night.

McGuire scored 25 points, none bigger than the two that completed a Gardiner rally after the Tigers (2-1) trailed by eight points going into the fourth quarter. Gardiner appeared doomed after a missed layup in traffic with under 20 seconds to go and Cony up 80-79, but Kyle Johnson’s defense forced a turnover and a foul with 6.6 ticks to go.

Johnson’s first free throw was pure, but his second was off line. McGuire broke quickly — at 6-foot-4, he was the tallest player on the floor — and beat the Cony defense to the ball, hesitating for an instant before putting it back up and in for the go-ahead basket.

“Once I saw it through, I felt light as air,” he said. “I wanted to have fun with my friends, but then you realize you have to go play defense for the last couple of seconds.”

Those last seconds almost flipped the script, as Cony’s Jordan Roddy got a good look at a 3-pointer as time expired but saw the shot end up just short. The ball hadn’t even landed when jubilant Gardiner fans, reawakened during the Tigers’ charge, stormed the court to join the celebrating players.

“One-point game, two-point game last year, we knew that was what it was going to be,” Gardiner coach Jason Cassidy said. “I think it was growth as a team. Last year, we lost a couple of these close games early, and hopefully we can learn that lesson quicker this year. That’s what it feels like tonight.”

Gardiner shot well all night — 56 percent from the field — but was flummoxed by Cony’s frantic pace, which featured a heavy amount of 3-pointers and full-court pressure nearly throughout the game. With Roddy burning the Tigers for 30 points, including 22 in the first half alone, the Rams (2-1) took a 43-35 lead at halftime and stretched the margin to 62-54 by the end of the third.

“Jordan is a special player,” Cony coach T.J. Maines said of Roddy, who hit four of the Rams’ 16 treys. “I’ve been saying it and saying it and saying it. Hopefully people are starting to recognize it.”

A technical foul 18 seconds in the fourth on a Gardiner shot attempt changed the flow of the game, however, as an ensuing foul meant the Tigers got six unanswered free throws in the span of four seconds. They hit five of them, turning the game from a potential runaway into a one-possession contest at 62-59.

“That was a big thing,” Maines said. “They go bang-bang on the free throws … and then they score on the out of bounds. It hurt the momentum a little bit.”

“We had a little life,” Cassidy said. “The kids started shooting the ball a little freer.”

The Tigers took advantage of the opportunity, closing the gap and taking their first lead since the opening basket at 64-62 on a 3-pointer by Hunter Chasse (12 points, nine in the fourth) with 6:32 to go. The teams traded leads before Gardiner built the advantage to 79-74 with 1:49 left, but Jake Dacus (nine points) hit a three, Roddy beat a double team for a driving layup and Austin Parlin (15 points) hit a free throw with 27 seconds left to give Cony the lead back at 80-79.

Unfortunately for the Rams, the Tigers had another chance. And then they created yet another.

“It brought us together more,” McGuire said of the win. “I think that’s going to show more into the season.”

McGuire led the way for Gardiner on the scoresheet, but the Tigers had contributions from throughout the roster. Isaiah Magee had 11 points while leading Gardiner’s transition game and disrupting Cony’s outlet passes. Collin Foye scored 12 points and went 6-for-8 from the free-throw line. Johnson finished with 10 points, scoring five points in the fourth quarter and nine in the second half. Gardiner padded its shot percentage with fast-break layups and attacks in transition, a testament to the Tigers’ ability to find open players and distribute on the move.

“With sharing the offense, I think guys were trying to find the guys who were closer to the basket than them,” Cassidy said. “The biggest thing for us is that kids were communicating themselves, and doing the things we try to teach them in practice.”

And still, without one crucial shot or two, it wouldn’t have been enough, which was the takeaway Maines focused on after the Rams fell one or two shots shy of holding off their first loss.

“We played well. We shot the ball well, worked hard defensively,” he said. “I’m really happy with the kids that I have. … I would have loved to see them get a win today; it would have been great for our team and our program. It didn’t work out. We didn’t make a play at the end of the game, that’s all.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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