Pittsburgh’s Steel City Yellow Jackets celebrate after a 127-122 victory in the semi-finals of the ABA tournament in Baltimore. Photo by Thomas Leturgey
by Thomas Leturgey
Tension was in the air when the Steel City Yellow Jackets were warming up for Friday afternoon’s semi-final matchup with the defending champion Jacksonville Giants. The two teams met in the finals last year and the loss still stings for just about everyone associated with Ace Pippen’s squad. Players, some of whom are always gregarious, were stone-faced. As the nation anthem rang out, Pippens was rustling his hands.
When the tip off flew through the air of the John and Joanna Phelps Gymnasium in Baltimore, both teams were treating this game as the championship.
In actuality, the teams match-up favorably. Steel City Yellow Jacket Co-Captain and starting forward Tone Reddic Sr. started the game with a quick jumper and two-point lead. Guard Bernard Nugent answered with his own score. This give-and-go would repeat itself throughout the semi-final contest. Guard Maurice Mickens showed his mettle by scoring the next two shots, before Reddic added another. Eli Smith, who would have a productive night for the Giants, started with his own bucket. The Giants would extend their lead to 15-9 before Guard Kenny Holmes, who got the starting nod instead of popping off the bench, and Reddic got hot. When the game began, it seemed as if the Yellow Jackets were trying too hard; however, that mood was only temporary. Reddic tied the game at 18 with 3:36 to go in the corner. But Mickens wouldn’t let that go down, as he hit a quick three-pointer. Aaron Bowen pushed the lead to 23-18.
After a media time-out, Forward Claude Scott, Jr. hit a shot and was fouled. He added the free-throw. Tim Jackson came off the bench to hit a three and the Yellow Jackets regained an early 24-23 lead with 1:28 to go in the quarter. But the Giants’ RJ Wright almost immediately hit a jumper to go back on top 24-25. Reddic added two the next time down the court.
Then one of the stranger occurrences of an emotional night happened. A Giants’ player shot, perhaps Eli Smith, bounced a shot off the basket’s rim and onto the stop of the backboard. In a millisecond, the ball rolled off the lip and went straight through the hoop. There was a discussion with officials with Michael McCorvery’s crew (George Prudent and Anthony McIntyre) as to if the score counted. After several moments, the shot was ultimately deemed not good.
Holmes hit a triple and then another jumper in the quarters final seconds. The Yellow Jackets were up 31-25.
The second 12 minutes began with Milkens, Tim Jackson, Bowen and Jason Arrington trading shots. There was a delay of game foul against the Yellow Jackets at 9:08 in the second quarter, but that didn’t deter the team. Brandon Johnson added a triple and a jumper to extend the lead 43-31 and Scott added two more to make it 45-31. Eli Smith came on for the Giants but Reddic answered.
Things started to devolve in a big way at 2:53 in the half. Officials called what would turn out to be a controversial, technical call on Claude Scott. Plenty of emotions and screaming broke out from both teams. Nugent brought the Giants close with a jumper, making it 47-43. Scott and Holmes (with a three-pointer) extended the lead to 52-43.
Emotions were still high as chaos took over in the final seconds of the half. For minutes on end, coaches and players from both teams were on the court and arguing with officials. Holmes took care of business and hit a three-pointer right before the end of the half. The Yellow Jackets were up 57-47.
When the second half started, Holmes and Reddic started hot. Mickens hit a three-pointer to answer for the Giants. Nugent hit a three-pointer of his own to make it 67-55. Co-Captain Gilmore Cummings hit one of his trademark three-point jumpers and the lead was up to 70-55.
When a time-out came at 7:51, the Yellow Jackets were a much looser club than when the game began.
Paul and Bowen weren’t finished. They added on their end, but the Yellow Jackets stayed strong. Both teams received a delay-of-game warning as things got sketchy. Paul was fouled and closed the lead to 76-68 with a jumper and a free-through after a foul.
In quick fashion, Tim Jackson, Scott and Reddic went on a tear. Reddic hit a stunning 3D jumper and just like that, the Yellow Jackets were up 87-68. The Pittsburgh bench was rabid with excitement.
Not long after that, the Yellow Jackets called for a time out and coaches and players rushed onto the floor. The officials took umbrage with the action and called a technical foul while the teams were in time out.
Once action began again, the Giants’ Paul, Smith and Nugent helped their team get closer, 87-73. Both teams traded baskets as the third quarter came to an end. The Yellow Jackets were up 90-78.
When the final quarter began, Brandon Johnson, Aaron Bowen, Tim Jackson and James Jackson (his was a three-pointer) traded baskets, but the Yellow Jackets remained up 96-80. Brandon Davis answered with his own three-pointer, and Aaron Bowen added two quick baskets to trim the lead to 96-87. Brandon Johnson later hit a shot to make it 100-89. Nugent and Bowen answered, but so did Scott and Reddic.
Over the next few minutes, both teams hustled like champions. Tone Reddic was repeatedly fouled hard, with some arguing whether the fouls were intentional, but the officials determined they were not. Reddic answered in ABA All-Star fashion by simply getting off the hardwood, shaking out the cobwebs and burying free throws.
Paul and Holmes traded three-pointers for their teams and Reddic was clobbered under the basket again. With the score 119-108, the Giants argued a call. The officiating crew, who rang up the Yellow Jackets coaching staff with a technical foul earlier with play officially stopped, allowed the Giants to squabble and scream for minutes on end.
Aaron Bowen, who had earlier plowed into the scorer’s table while chasing a ball, fell and was taken off the court with only about two minutes to go in the game. The game was 120-109, but the Giants made one last valiant push. Bernard Nugent led the charge, and was called for a technical foul in the the process (it was thought that there were actually two technicals because of heat from the Giants’ bench, but that was retracted), and time ran out and the defending ABA champions were on the short end of a 127-122 barn burner.
Antonio Reddic, Sr. had a game-leading 43 points. Kenny Holmes added 28, Tim Jackson had 18, Claude Scott, Jr. 14, Brandon Johnson 13, James Jackson 5, Jason Arrington and Gilmore Cummings had three each.
For the Giants, Bernard Nugent had 34, Eli Smith 22, Aaron Bowen 21, Maurice Mickens 20, Miguel Paul 13, Brandon Davis 8 and Chuck McRoy 2
The Yellow Jackets now return to the finals to take on Team Trouble from California on Saturday, at 6:30 p.m. at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore.