When Conway football coach Carlton Terry talks about Tonka Hemingway putting himself in position to go wherever he wants, he’s talking about the standout defensive lineman’s college options.
When Conway basketball coach Mike Hopkins says something similar, he’s talking about success on the basketball court.
For the second game in a row — the two biggest of the year to date for the Tiger hoops squad — Hemingway’s last-second heroics equated to another victory. His layup with two seconds remaining lifted Conway to a 57-55 win over Stall in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs on Wednesday.
“I knew he was going to pass me the ball,” Hemingway said after teammate Tim Steele picked up a loose ball near the rim and dished it off. “It was on me to make it.”
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound forward came through, with the ball only touching enough of the back of the rim to help ease it through the net. Stall’s heave at the buzzer was well short, and it sent the Tigers to the second round of the postseason for the second consecutive season.
If some of that scenario sounds familiar, it’s because a similar situation unfolded last Tuesday, when his put back in the final seconds delivered a win over West Florence. That victory and some tie-breaker help gave Conway a share of the region championship and the No. 1 seed for the postseason.
The Tigers took advantage against Stall, but not before longtime Conway fans in attendance, including several members of the highly established Hemingway family, had some nail-biting to do down the stretch. Like many of the Tigers’ first-round home games since 1994 — a span that included three home losses to lower-seeded teams in the last decade alone — this one was too close for comfort.
That all came despite Hopkins’ designed effort to get Stall’s best players into foul trouble. Warriors 6-foot-7 center Seth Rivers had three fouls before halftime, and three other starters had at least two.
“We wanted to try to make them expend more energy, especially with their key guys,” Hopkins said. “Once we got their big guys, we tried to go at them and get them out of position.”
Yet, Stall wouldn’t go easy.
The Warriors continued to push and attack in a myriad ways, keeping the game within a five-point window nearly throughout. In the end, the final bucket of Hemingway’s game-high 25 points was the ultimate difference maker.
It was another exclamation point on a junior season in which his football offer list has continued to rise. He already has them from the likes of Clemson, South Carolina and Alabama. Recently, Wake Forest joined the fray, and Stanford has been sniffing around with some serious consideration of the kid with the 4.4 GPA and seemingly endless talent on the gridiron.
His father, Ken, said Wednesday night that the family will establish and announce a list of finalists in May and that the plan is to announce a verbal commitment the week of Conway’s first football game next fall — much like they did when older brother Junior verbally committed to Michigan.
“I want to have it done before the season,” Tonka Hemingway said. “That way if I get hurt, I’m still [taken care of]. The schools I’ve got right now, they’re good. The ones that come, they come.”
Right now, though, it’s all about basketball, and helping the No. 1 seeded Tigers stick around in the playoffs for a bit longer. On Saturday, they’ll play host to No. 3 seed James Island (which upset West Ashley Wednesday). Win there, and it will be on to face the Lexington-Goose Creek winner.
At this point, Hopkins knows better than to look ahead. After all, his team got all the push they wanted from a Stall squad that was the final team to qualify for the Class 5A lower state bracket via an at-large bid.
Thankfully, he could count on Hemingway to close again.
“That’s what good players do,” Hopkins said. “He’s the player of the year for a reason.”