He took one step over the three-point line and sank a last-second jumper to decide his team’s fate.
On March 5 in the Triad regional semifinal, when Deion Lavender’s buzzer-beater put the Marquette Explorers up 49-47 over Highland, their battle to get to the Class 3A regional championship game at Triad was over.
Fans from either team at the Triad regional rose in awe as the final buzzer sounded; some in excitement, some in disbelief. However, anyone who had watched the Marquette Explorers play basketball this season knew of the team’s innovative qualities.
One of those innovators had just scored 30 points and a last-second shot to win the game.
“That last-second shot against Highland probably stands out to me more than anything else this season,” Lavender said. “It was an amazing feeling and we got the win we needed to eventually win the regional.”
Their victory over the Bulldogs was a crucial step in getting the Explorers their third regional title in three years. Lavender’s 30 points and game-winning shot blazed the trail for the Explorers.
“Deion is what I like to call a three-tiered player,” Marquette coach Steve Medford said during the season. “He can shoot, get to the rack and pull up for a jump shot if the defense is too deep.”
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound senior swingman averaged 25.5 points this season on a 22-7 team. He earned multiple all-tournament honors, led his team to a regional championship over Jersey and secured a Division 1 scholarship to play basketball next year at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in the Missouri Valley Conference.
"He has an opportunity to be a very special player,” Saluki head coach Barry Hinson said in a news release. "We wanted to make sure we signed athletic guards that had the skill level to put the ball in the basket, and he does."
Hinson, in his third year as coach at SIUC, said Lavender was present on a recruiting trip to Southern for the sold-out game on March 1 vs. Illinois State, and that game affected his decision to sign with the Salukis.
"With the excitement that's now surrounding this program, you bring a kid in and he's sitting there looking at a sold-out crowd, how could you say `no' to SIU basketball?" Hinson asked. "He saw that the future is bright for the Salukis."
As Lavender moves on, Medford and the Explorers lose a four-year starter and a team leader who will be hard to replace. Medford will have to make some adjustments in lieu of Lavender’s graduation; he’s been coach for four years and has always had Lavender as a key contributor on the court.
“We won 25 games his freshmen year, 28 his sophomore year and 21 his junior year,” Medford said. “Deion really came into his own his junior year; he stepped up and became the kind of player he is now.”
DeLeon Lavender, Deion’s father, has been an assistant with Medford for four years. So next year, the father, son and coach combination that has fueled Marquette’s success on the hardwood may be disbanded, but the tradition Medford and the Lavenders have built should give the program a sturdy foundation for Medford and the coaching staff to build on.
“I loved going to Marquette and playing basketball for coach Medford and my dad,” Lavender said. “Jordan Harris and Steven Peuterbaugh weren’t in a lot of varsity games until this year, but they stepped up this year and, as team, we were able to have the kind of success we did this year.”