Spokane Shock head coach Rob Keefe often compares the last minute of an Arena Football League contest with the last minute of a college basketball game.
Make your free throws, make your opponent burn time before scoring and that last minute generally goes smoothly. Miss your free throws and it can get interesting in a hurry.
It got extremely interesting in the last 50 seconds Saturday when Spokane gave up two onside kick recoveries, but the Shock defense came up with a couple of key plays to preserve a 70-69 win over No. 1 Arizona in front of 10,113 at the Arena.
“It’s literally the longest minute in sports,” Keefe said. “People are fouling, you gotta make your foul shots. It’s back and forth. Recovering the onside kick is like hitting your foul shots, because this is the ultimate possession game.
“But our defense reacted in a great way. We learned how to win that game about seven times.”
A week after defeating second-ranked Orlando on the road, the Shock knocked off the AFL’s last unbeaten team. Spokane (3-4) is still in last place in the West Division, but it has closed the gap. The Shock improved to 4-0 all time against the Rattlers, who are one game in front of San Jose.
“That was an undefeated team, it was a division game and a rival,” said linebacker Antwan Marsh, who made eight tackles and recovered a fumble. “We had to have this game.”
The Shock scored on their last nine possessions. They seemed to be in control with a 70-56 lead after Raul Vijil caught an onside kick in stride and took it 8 yards for a touchdown with 2:18 left.
The Rattlers pulled within 70-63 on ex-Shock quarterback Nick Davila’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Rod Windsor with 52.3 seconds left. Arizona was back in business when Marquis Floyd recovered the ensuing onside kick.
Arizona tried to work the clock down and make Spokane spend its three timeouts before facing fourth-and-4 at the Shock 8 with 22.1 seconds left. Under heavy pressure, Davila fired an incompletion but Spokane’s Alex Teems was flagged for pass interference.
Odie Armstrong scored on a 4-yard run and the Rattlers opted to go for the two-point conversion. Beau Bell hit Davila just as he released the ball and ex-Rattler Terrance Sanders broke up the pass intended for receiver Trandon Harvey with 11.9 seconds remaining.
It still wasn’t over.
Arizona again recovered the onside kick. After an incompletion, Fabrizio Scaccia attempted a 47-yard field goal, but the ball barely got off the ground before it was blocked by Khreem Smith.
“Our defense just hung in there, that’s the story,” Shock quarterback Kyle Rowley said. “They just said, ‘The hell with it, we’ll just stop them.’ ”
Rowley was intercepted by former Shock defensive back Virgil Gray on Spokane’s second possession, but he rebounded to toss eight touchdown passes, four to Vijil and three to Greg Orton. Rowley added a rushing touchdown as the Shock surpassed the 60-point barrier for the fourth straight game.
“One mistake, early this season we were making two. If we can get it down to zero, I think we’ll be running away with these games,” Rowley said. “Knocking off No. 2 and No. 1 gets our confidence going a little bit. Now we have to get wins against teams we’re supposed to get wins against.”
Davila passed for 318 yards and six touchdowns, but the Rattlers were stung by a botched quarterback-center exchange and an Armstrong fumble that was forced by Bell late in the third quarter.
“I would have a big problem if we won that game and we’d regressed, but that’s not what happened,” Keefe said. “We’ve got a bunch of teaching tools we can go over on Monday, but there are a lot of pats on the back in that locker room. I couldn’t be more proud of this bunch.”
The Shock visit Pittsburgh (3-4) on Saturday.