With no timeouts and less than 10 seconds left in a tied game, second-ranked Liberty had two options on a third-down play from the Basic 4-yard line.
The Patriots either could attempt a field goal or take one shot at a pass into the end zone and then kick on fourth down if necessary.
Patriots quarterback Kai Nacua had another idea.
The senior checked out of the pass play called from the sideline and instead handed the ball to Niko Kapeli, who fought his way across the goal line to give Liberty a 28-22 road win over No. 8 Basic on Thursday and at least a share of the Southeast League title.
“I honestly didn’t think about (the risk of Kapeli getting stopped) at all,” Nacua said. “I believed our line could get the push, and I had confidence Niko being the beast he is could get it to the end zone.”
Liberty coach Rich Muraco might have been a little more nervous.
“I didn’t even think about it until after we scored,” he said. “I have a lot of faith in Kai, though. It’s something a lot of high school teams don’t do, but he’s a three-year starter at quarterback, and we have confidence he’s going to make the right call.”
Kapeli, who has committed to UNLV, declined to comment, insisting offensive tackle Jarvis Polu talk instead.
“We stay calm under pressure,” Polu said. “We just know to do whatever Kai tells us and go make the plays. We know that we have two of the best players in the state.”
The conclusion was not without controversy. Several Basic coaches were discussing a formal protest with officials because the Liberty offense went to the sideline to meet with its coaches after spiking the ball on second down despite not having any timeouts remaining.
Basic coach Jeff Cahill said what transpired was “illegal” to his understanding but was pleased with his team’s effort.
“Everybody said Liberty would run us over and we weren’t tough enough. I think we proved that wrong,” he said. “This game came down to inches, and they got the inches they needed. We didn’t. We look forward to playing them again.”
Muraco is not concerned about any potential issues regarding the final sequence.
“If they want to cry over something like that, whatever,” he said. “We still would have kicked the field goal and won the game anyway.”
Liberty (7-1, 4-0) trailed 22-14 after Antraye Johnson scored on a 37-yard run on the final play of the third quarter. Johnson took most of the snaps in the second half essentially in a wildcat formation and finished with 141 yards on the ground.
The Patriots blocked the extra point, however, to remain within eight.
Tyler Newman scored on a 4-yard run midway through the fourth quarter after Nacua exited the game due to cramps. Nacua returned to run in the tying 2-point conversion.
Basic (6-2, 3-1) took a 16-14 lead into halftime when Nacua fumbled just before crossing the goal line in the final minute of the second quarter.
Nacua finished with 119 yards rushing and 171 through the air. Kapeli ran for 79 yards.
The Patriots began their final possession at their 33 with 2:13 remaining. Nacua had a 13-yard run and completed passes of 11 and 32 yards as part of the winning drive.