Twenty ticks, and a flick of the wrist.
With a nothing-but-net 3-pointer, Braxton Jennings made his dad glad he purchased a one-way ticket from Arizona. It marked the first time Chris Jennings had watched his son in person on the court this season.
Dad’s stay is prolonged through at least Friday after he witnessed his sophomore son’s game-winning 3-pointer in Ashland’s opening-round defeat of Owensboro, 66-65, in the Sweet Sixteen in Lexington on Wednesday.
Chris, a former NFL running back who starred at Fairview and then the University of Arizona in the 2000s, was so elated that he bear-hugged Bill Renzi, Braxton’s grandpa, with brute force at Rupp Arena.
“Chris is running up and down the steps,” Renzi said with a chuckle. “He hugged me, and it was like hugging a boulder. I hug him all the time, but in that emotional moment, he about broke me in half.”
Jennings nailed the long ball — his third of the game — just under the 20-second mark before Owensboro missed on its final three chances. Ashland advanced to the quarterfinals. It will now face Warren Central for a chance at a state semifinal appearance.
When Jennings kicked the ball out to teammate Nate Freize on the left wing, Renzi thought his grandson had an opportunity for an open midrange jumper. Jennings popped out to the perimeter, though, and Freize immediately sent the ball back to Jennings with an overhead pass. As he caught it with his team trailing by two, Renzi knew he was set to fire away.
“Perfect rhythm, perfect form, perfect shot,” Renzi said.
And a perfect time for Chris Jennings to be in attendance.
A commercial developer in Phoenix, Chris said he and Braxton have a close bond despite being physically separated by 2,000 miles most of the time.
“Before every basketball and football game, we talk and say a quick prayer together,” Braxton Jennings said. “It helps me a lot.”
Earlier this season, Dad inquired Son about an ideal time to come see him play. Last year, Chris saw Braxton and the Tomcats beat Rose Hill at Anderson Gym.
When he asked Braxton, Chris received a confident answer.
“When he asked when I wanted him to come in, I told him I had confidence we’d make it to State,” the younger Jennings said.
“That was a tough call, but it was just the confidence when he told me that early on in the season,” Chris Jennings said. “Just to hear his confidence and that security, knowing, OK, that’s the way it’s going to be. So it was like, ‘OK, I’ll see you at State. … You better get there!’”
Jennings played a major role in propelling the Tomcats to this point.
The 10th-grader discovered a dynamite shooting stroke in the 16th Region semifinals against Russell, draining 5 of 6 3-pointers. After going 3 of 4 on Wednesday, he’s 8 of his last 10. In the first 26 games played prior to those two performances, Jennings was just 7 of 23 from 3-point land.
Coach Ryan Bonner said “it’s been phenomenal” to see Jennings’s growth on the hardwood.
The coaching staff noticed Jennings could score in spurts as early as December, but his defensive intensity was his main attribute.
“We knew he had some tools to help us on the defensive end,” Bonner said.
Bonner said he and Jennings engaged in some one-on-one conversations about how he could increase his playing time.
“He responded so maturely,” Bonner said, “and applied it on the floor. Because he did that, he saw a steady increase in his minutes. … It all came together full force (against Russell) in Morehead.”
Not only a defensive stopper, Jennings can now add “clutch shooter” to his scouting report — despite ranking eighth on the team in scoring average for the season.
Renzi said his grandson is flourishing because he’s playing more freely along with sustaining a remarkable work ethic.
“He works so hard on getting better,” said Renzi, who is the father of Erica Wilson, Braxton’s mother. “He’ll go to the Y at 6 a.m., hit weights, get up shots … he just wants to win. When he gets his opportunity to help his team win — which is the most important thing — it’s incredibly exciting.”
Although they share an affinity — and ability — for football, Chris said he has always seen Braxton as “a hooper.” He tells him his collegiate future might just be in basketball, but he knows his son is passionate about football, too.
“On either terrain, he contributes,” Chris said. “When they let him go out there and just play, the sky’s the limit.”
Wednesday was a family affair, for sure, as Braxton’s mom, grandparents, little brother, great aunt and dad were in the stands.
Braxton Jennings was cool under pressure in front of special eyes.
“It was a blessing,” he said.
In his mind, it all started with defense.
“Honestly, the game just comes to you as you play hard defense,” Braxton said.
Bonner elected to not call a timeout before the game-winning shot because Ashland is a transition team, and he didn’t want to disrupt flow.
“I don’t think anything I could’ve drawn up at that point would’ve given us a better look than what Braxton got,” Bonner said. “The ball ended up in the right guy’s hands.
“I’m just absolutely overwhelmed with joy for him,” Bonner added. “Walking off the floor last night, I thought about how awesome it was that his dad was there to see it. … His dad came up and greeted me with a great big hug. It’s the same kind of greeting you’d expect from Braxton. He loves his teammates, and he’s just a good overall kid. … Years from now, Braxton is going to be telling this story to his son or his daughter. That’s beyond basketball. I’m happy for him, and happy for our program.”
“My heart is full for him,” Chris Jennings said.