Ben Peterson had made that shot in practice dozens of times. But never with the game on the line, let alone with a conference championship at stake.
The Atwater High senior buried a shot from 18 feet out with 2.61 seconds left to send the game with Merced water polo into overtime. The Falcons outlasted the Bears 16-15 in a heart-stopping battle between the top two boys water polo teams in the Central California Conference on Wednesday night at Golden Valley.
"When I got the ball, I didn't have a choice. I had to shoot it," Peterson said. "I looked up and there was 4 seconds left.
"I've had that feeling a couple times playing basketball. This was the first time in water polo. It's the best feeling in the world, knowing you kept your team in the game."
The Falcons (16-1 overall, 7-0 CCC) opened a two-game lead on Merced (5-2 CCC) with three games left in the regular season.
Atwater had to fight from behind to do it.
Merced sprinted out to a 5-2 lead in the first quarter and stretched the lead to four goals in the second quarter.
"(Merced) is such a well-coached team," Atwater coach David Svendsen said. "Kit (Gratton), Seth (Gentry) and John (Price) do such a great job of getting them ready for the game.
"All their guys are moving and all six players are getting out in transition. They feed off of offensive mistakes."
However, the Bears went cold in the third quarter, missing shots they normally put away.
Atwater goalie Corbett McDaniel's 20 saves also played a big role.
That opened the door for the Falcons, who cut the lead to 9-8 heading into the fourth quarter.
Merced still appeared in good shape late as it extended the lead to two goals twice in the fourth. Matt Cagle's goal gave the Bears a 13-11 lead with 3:19 left in regulation.
"Our guys have no quit in them, no quit at all," Svendsen said. "We just kept preaching during every timeout, every break: one goal at a time."
Brody Patterson scored on a Peterson pass to pull the Falcons within 13-12 with 2:40 left.
Dominic Olsen, who played great at goalie for Merced, appeared to make a game-saving block when he stopped a shot from Josh Heller right in front of the cage with 1:05 left.
Merced's James Hise then came up with a big steal from Heller on the Falcons' next possession with 35 seconds left.
Atwater got the ball back with five seconds left and quickly passed it up the left side to Peterson. The senior fired a shot into the right corner of the net that set off a wild Atwater celebration.
The Falcons took advantage of man-up situations early in the first 3-minute overtime period. Heller (seven goals) drew eight Merced ejections in the game.
Peterson (five goals and nine assists) became a distributer in overtime, as he found Jordan Esparza and Brodie Patterson for easy goals on 6-on-5 opportunities.
The ejections mounted up for Merced as its top defensive player Ethan Eagleton and one of its top all-around players Matt Cagle missed almost the entire overtime periods after being disqualified with three ejections.
"It was three to one in ejections," said Gratton. "I felt like we were playing equally as aggressive. That was a major factor. We were without three starters in overtime."
Isaac Santana's fifth goal of the game for Merced cut the Falcons' lead to 16-15 with 1:09 left in the second overtime, but the Bears couldn't pull even.
"It was such a fitting way to have the two best teams in the CCC play a game like this," Svendsen said. "To have it go to overtime and have the stands packed. What an awesome game."