It had to be muscle memory.
That is the only plausible explanation for Kyle Sliwa's blind 30-foot shot at the buzzer that lifted Fremd to a miraculous 43-42 victory over Conant in the Class 4A sectional championship game at Robert Morris University in Arlington Heights on Friday.
"It was a prayer," said Sliwa, who drained a similar shot to beat Conant back in January.
"I didn't even see the rim, and it wasn't a real shot. I just flung it. It felt like a line drive and I thought it was long."
Sliwa and Fremd got the opportunity when Conant, leading 42-40 with 11.2 seconds left, missed a free throw. Fremd's good fortunes continued when he ball bounced off a Conant player and went out of bounds underneath the Fremd basket with 8.9 seconds left.
After a Fremd timeout, Brian Dompke inbounded the ball to Sliwa in the backcourt. With Conant's Jimmy Sotos on him, Sliwa drove downcourt to the right, where he picked up a screen on Sotos.
Conant, recognizing the play, switched defenders, and the Cougars' 6-foot-9 Ryan Davis stepped up on Sliwa. Looking into the Davis' chest, the 6-foot Sliwa stepped to his right, faked and then stepped back. Davis moved even closer to guard Sliwa, who then fired up a line drive that hit nothing but net right in front of a jubilant Fremd student section, which raced to the court in a wild celebration.
"I was expecting him to buy more into the fake," said Sliwa, who was still being mobbed by teammates and fellow students. "I knew he wasn't going to foul me. I knew I was going to get the shot off."
Fremd coach Bob Widlowski said he still couldn't believe the finish.
"That was tremendously exciting," said Widlowski, whose team has beaten Conant three times this season. "To hit the last-second shot to win the sectional is an unbelievable combination of events that occurred there. I thought when he got it up, it was going in."
Fremd's Shaan Patel, who had fouled out earlier, was on the bench thinking about his future when Sliwa, who finished with 13 points, canned the shot.
"I am not going to lie, I thought my high school career was over," Patel said. "That kid has ice in his veins."
Fremd (30-0) remained unbeaten and became the second team in school history to advance to the Elite Eight, joining the 1993 squad with that distinction. The Vikings will meet Jacobs (29-1) at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. for the opporunity to play among the state's Final Four.
Lost in the Sliwa shot and the ensuing celebration was the fact that with the Conant defeat ended the career of Conant coach Tom McCormack, who is retiring after 31 years as head coach. McCormack, always humble in victory and classy in defeat, would not dwell on his career. Rather, his only thoughts were about his team.
"I am really thinking about those kids in there," McCormack said. "They did everything they needed to do out there."
Including on the game-ending sequence.
"I thought we had it tremendously defended with a big guy," McCormack said.
After 11 lead changes and two ties, Conant (27-5) broke away late in the first half.
Led by Davis, who finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, Conant went on a 10-4 run to close out the final 3:27 to take a 29-23 lead at the break.
Conant, which converted 7 of 9 shots in the quarter, scored 21 points against Fremd in that quarter. It was the most points that the Vikings had given up in a quarter all season.
"That had not happened to us all year," Widlowski said. "And we talked about that at halftime. We just locked them down defensively and we were able to get back in the game."
Fremd kept Conant from scoring a field goal the entire third quarter. The Vikings also began to take the play to the Cougars on the offensive end, drawing fouls and getting into the bonus early.
With that, the Vikings slowly climbed back into it and regained the lead on a Luke Schoffstall layup with 3:50 to play to make it 35-35.
Sotos, realizing his team needed a lift, offensively, began to take matters into his hands. The Bucknell recruit, who finished with 12 points, drilled a 3 from the corner for the first field goal by the Cougars in the second half with 3:30 to play. He then had a layup and Conant led 40-36 with 2:56 left.
Sliwa hit 2 free throws with 1:23 left to cut the deficit to 40-38, but the Cougars' CJ Deshazer responded with a pair of free throws with 31.3 seconds left to make it 42-38.
Schoffstall (10 points) had another layup with 20 seconds to play to make it 42-40. Fremd fouled 8.8 seconds later, setting the final moments in motion.
"Our guys kept their focus when we were down," Widlowski said. "The timeouts were locked in. They were listening, and we put ourselves in a situation to win the game."
Fremd got 7 points from Mark Kating off the bench and 5 points each from Patel and Dompke. Conant got 8 points from Ben Schols.
McCormack credited his team's success not only to his players, but to his assistant coaches as well.
"My assistants came up with a great game plan and the kids executed it," McCormack said.
It was a game for the ages in the Northwest suburbs with a standing room-only crowd of 2,487 filling the former Forest View gym.