RECAP: Smith's Buzzer Beater Sends Pilots to Regional Finals

WARREN, Mich - March 30, 2021: The night that sophomore guard Nino Smith became a part of De La Salle lore.

As the clock hit triple zeros in Tuesday night's MHSAA regional semifinal contest between DLS and Detroit King, Smith sank the 3-pointer that gave the Pilots (11-3) a 53-51 victory on their home floor at the Bill Fox Gymnasium.

Smith, who finished with 12 points, knew the shot was good, as soon as it left his hands.

And, immediately after the ball splashed through the net, pandemonium swept over the gym, leading to an unforgettable moment for Smith.

"There's really never been anything like hitting that shot before in my life," Smith said after the game. "This is literally a moment I'll never forget. This is something I'll tell my kids about one day. It was amazing."

Multiple timeouts were called before Pilots senior guard Linden Holder inbounded the ball on the last shot. And the ball didn't go right into Smith's hands. 

Instead, it first went to junior guard Caleb Reese, who then found Smith near mid-court. Smith proceeded to take a couple of dribbles before nailing the game-winner right in front of the 3-point line.

Leading up to the shot, the game had become "a chess match," according to DLS head coach Gjon Djokaj.

"When they (the Crusaders) called their first timeout, they had their bigs in. We thought they were going to be switching everything. When we called a timeout, they made an adjustment and went small to stay with our guards," Djokaj said. "So, we had a screen-to-screener setup, to try to get a layup. And it turned into America's play, where they guarded Linden and took him away. And, it was just time for Nino to show the world what he's all about. And he did just that."

The Crusaders led by as many as eight points, 20-12, with 4:50 to play in the second quarter. 

The Pilots, at the time, direly needed someone to step up on offense, and much like the majority of the season, Holder came to the rescue. 

Holder, who scored a team-high 16 points, proceeded to knock down two 3-pointers to help bring the game to a 20-20 tie. 

The Purple and Gold went into the locker room all even with King at 22 apiece, and from there on, it remained largely a back-and-forth affair. The Pilots outscored the Crusaders by just two points in the second half, 31-29.

Smith wasn't the only sophomore that played a significant role in the DLS win, as fellow second-year student-athletes Triston Nichols and Michael Sulaka also did.

Nichols scored 10 points, and Sulaka, who provided some valuable third-quarter minutes, chipped in six points, six rebounds, and two blocks.

Djokaj believes that Sulaka had his best game of the season Tuesday.

"Mikey has blossomed into a stud, and all of a sudden, he's learned his role and he's dominating against top-tier competition like he did tonight," Djokaj said.

Sulaka is affectionately known as the "baby giraffe" of the Pilots.

"We call him a baby giraffe, because he's just growing into himself and is getting better every single day he's out on the floor," Djokaj explained. "He's got the chance to be one of the best big men in this school's history. He's still figuring it all out. But, he's a super special talent, and you can't teach a lot of the stuff he can do."

The Pilots' next opponent is a familiar foe in the U-D Jesuit Cubs (11-0). 

DLS played the Cubs this season once before, losing to its Catholic League Central division rivals in double overtime March 11, 66-64. 

The Purple and Gold now have a chance to avenge that loss and win a regional championship Thursday at 7 p.m. on the campus of DLS. 

"I told the kids they have until midnight to enjoy this win against King, and then we have five o'clock practice tomorrow," Djokaj said. "U-D's won eight straight regionals. They present an unbelievable challenge, and we're just excited to be given the opportunity to see what we can do against them."
 

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