TACOMA — Two years ago, the Union boys basketball team trailed Federal Way by three points in the final seconds of the 4A state semifinals.
The ball ended up in the hands of a talented sophomore, who had a good look at a 3-pointer that would have forced overtime.
Cameron Cranston missed on that day.
He didn’t miss on Friday.
Cranston’s driving layup with 3.2 seconds left lifted Union over Richland 63-61 in the 4A semifinals at the Tacoma Dome.
There was no more fitting player to hit the shot that sent Union into Saturday’s 4A state championship game against Kentwood. The 4A state player of the year will end his high school career on Washington high school basketball’s biggest stage.
“He’s been working since he was young to be in this exact position,” said James Franklin Jr., whose pass found Cranston cutting along the baseline for the winning basket. “He’s been taking third and fourth place the past couple of years, now he gets a chance to take first. … We want to do it for everybody, but it’s special with Cam.”
Two years ago, Mike Cranston was on the Union bench as an assistant coach. Friday, the head coach of the Union girls basketball team was in the stands strictly as a dad.
He has seen how losses and missed shots annoy his son. After a regular-season loss at Camas in January, Cranston asked his dad to open the Union gym for a 10 p.m. shooting session.
Before Friday’s game, Cranston sent his son a short video clip of that late-night shooting session.
“He was shooting lights out, mad as all could be,” Mike Cranston said. “I said ‘hey, this is what competitors do. You’ve done those things, so now go and get after it.’ ”
And when Friday’s semifinal came down to the final possession?
“I was like, here we go again,” he said.
Union coach Blake Conley said Cranston’s winning shot involved much more than simply making a driving lay-in as a Richland defender closed in.
After Cranston inbounded the ball to Franklin to the right of the key, he had a choice.
Usually, Cranston would run along the 3-point line toward the top of the key. But the two Richland defenders were playing him tightly, anticipating he would roll that way.
So Cranston went to Plan B, which was to cut along the baseline.
That was wide open.
“We give him a choice to either go up or down,” Conley said. “He usually goes up. But Cam is such a smart basketball player that he’s usually going to make the right decision.”
Shortly after Friday’s win, Conley talked with reporters under the Tacoma Dome bleachers. He lauded Cranston’s work ethic. He said whichever college he plays for will get a steal — Cranston has thus far been recruited by lower-division colleges.
Conley then stopped to embrace Cranston in a bear hug as he sprinted toward the locker room.
“To see him grow like he has as a player has been really cool,” Conley said. “It’s one of the many rewarding things about coaching. …It’s very poetic for him to make that shot.”
Cranston has seen the other side of the coin. He has known the gut-punch of seeing a crucial shot bounce off the rim in a state semifinal.
“It definitely motivated me over the years to get shots down,” he said. “You want to make big-time plays in big-time moments. So that has definitely been in the back of my mind at the end of games.”
That only made Friday’s game-winner more rewarding.
“It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted,” he said. “I can’t even put it into words right now.”
Micah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @col_mrice.