Romeo Weems bent over, slapped the palms of both hands on the floor and then walked to the New Haven bench.
The 6-foot-7 all-stater and everyone else in the crowded Corunna gymnasium knew that a key moment, perhaps the defining moment, of a state Class B quarterfinal boys basketball game had arrived.
The Rockets led Bridgeport 43-37 when Weems was called for his fourth personal foul with 3:46 left in the third quarter Tuesday.
What moments earlier had been a 40-28 New Haven lead was dwindling, and the Bridgeport side was in an uproar at the prospect of the Tri-Valley Conference champions completing a comeback and ending the Rockets’ bid for a second consecutive trip to the Breslin Center and the state semifinals.
“We’re everybody’s championship game,” Weems said later. “They want it just as much as we do.”
Weems is by any estimation the Rockets’ top player, his stature underscored by the frequent presence of big-time college coaches who turn out to watch him play. (Michigan State’s Tom Izzo arrived early and stayed for the duration of the quarterfinal.)
But on this night, with the defense of their 2017 state crown and a 51-game winning streak hanging in the balance, the Rockets showed there is more than Weems that makes up their championship-caliber pedigree.
Ronald Jeffery Jr., a junior guard who gave the full house a preview of his evening by scoring the Rockets’ first eight points, including four after he had snatched a couple of offensive rebounds, sank a 3-point shot for a 46-39 lead.
And then Ascaun Johnson, a former starter who now comes off the bench, made a basket, and Ashton Sherrell, the Rockets’ steady center, who like Weems had to contend with foul trouble against the quick-handed Bearcats, sank a pair of free throws that gave New Haven a 50-41 lead as the third quarter wound down.
“Ascaun really gave us a lift in that stretch,” coach Tedaro France II said.
And Jeffery wasn’t done.
His 3-pointer with 24 seconds left gave the MAC Blue Division champions the 53-43 lead they took into the fourth quarter.
So what looked like a desperate moment for the Rockets turned into a 10-6 run and a 10-point lead.
Bridgeport would be heard from in the fourth quarter, but the Bearcats’ 10-point deficit and their inability to capitalize on Weems’ absence gained significance as the clock melted.
“When you can win games in March and not play your best, it shows the grit and toughness of your kids,” France said after a 78-72 victory was in the books.
“Tonight we got out-scrapped, but found a way to win. Every time we walk into a gym, we get the other team’s best shot.”
New Haven didn’t set out this season to win league, district and regional championships.
It’s the big trophy the Rockets want, the one that’ll be handed to the winner of the state final Saturday night.
“We haven’t won anything yet,” France said.
As they make way for a second consecutive trip to the Breslin Center and a state semifinal game, the Rockets know it’s possible to push on without Weems.
“My teammates had my back,” Weems said. “When I was on the bench, they told me to keep my head up.”
New Haven (26-0) plays Grand Rapids Catholic Central (23-2) at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
The winner takes on either Benton Harbor or River Rouge in the championship game.
CLASS A: De La Salle takes on Clarkston in semifinals.