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January 11, 2017

McConnell's buzzer-beater caps off Sixers' improbable comeback win over Knicks

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Even for the most optimistic of Sixers fans, this had to at least a little surprising. 

The Sixers were trailing the Knicks, 93-83, with 2:29 left to play. The home team was hanging around, sure, but given how it had played over the previous 45.5 minutes on Tuesday night, there wasn't much reason to believe the Sixers had a comeback in them, no matter how great you were feeling thanks to the sugar high from your 22nd Shirley Temple of the night.

But then it started.

A one-and-one by Joel Embiid, followed by a three-pointer from Robert Covington (in a game his team spent most of the night shooting below 20 percent from deep), made it a four-point game. Then Derrick Rose, back in the Knicks lineup after recently going AWOL, pushed his team's lead back to six with 1:23 left in the game.

But when Embiid banked in a three from the top of the arc to make cut the deficit to three, it started to seem like the loss wasn't quite a foregone conclusion. 

The 7-foot-2 rookie followed that up with a layup on the Sixers' next possession, making it a 95-94 game before Rose scored again to push the Knicks back up three.

That, however, would be the last time New York would score. 

A pair of Gerald Henderson free throws made it a 97-96 game with 27.8 seconds to go. And after a Kristaps Porzingis miss with under 10 seconds left, the Sixers, who hadn't led in over 14 minutes and trailed by as many as 13 in the fourth quarter had one last chance to win the game. 

Take it away, T.J. McConnell...

It was bedlam -- in the best possible way -- at the Wells Fargo Center as the Sixers (11-25) came all the way back to beat the Knicks, 98-97.

McConnell finished with 8 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds – and, of course, the game-winner, which he said was the first of his career.

"Ever. In all my years of basketball, that was my first one," he said. "If there was one in grade school, I can't remember it. I know there wasn't one in high school or in college either."

[h/t to freelance photographer Alex Subers for taking that awesome photo. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.]

"I just -- I'm still just -- I can't even think of a word for it," McConnell added. "It feels really good, but it feels even better to get a win even though we played pretty bad tonight."

It's true, the Sixers weren't at their best against the Knicks. They shot just 38.9 percent from the field, but they were able to keep their turnovers in check (14) and grab 18 offensive rebounds, 10 more than their opponents. 

And when it counted most, the Sixers made all the shots they needed -- they hit their last five field goals during that 15-4 run to close out the game.

"I just ran to an open spot and Ersan [Ilyasova] passed me the ball," McConnell said. "I thought we were going to throw it to Joel [Embiid], so when the ball was coming at me I was like, 'Oh my God.' Then I tried to make a layup and Carmelo [Anthony] cut me off and I just turned around and shot the shot."

Embiid, despite not being the one to take that final shot, finished with a team-high 21 points and a new career-high in rebounds with 14, more than any other NBA rookie has collected in a game all season. 

“It gives us a lot of confidence going forward," he said after the win. "For T.J. to hit that big shot and for us to be down 10 with about 2 minutes left and come back -- that’s been a problem for us. We haven’t really learned how to finish games. 

"The last couple of games we’ve been finishing, so that gives us a lot of confidence.”

How much confidence? 

"Playoff time, baby," Embiid added with a smile.

After winning four of their last five games -- with their only loss in that stretch being a nail-biter to the Celtics on Saturday -- he doesn't sound all that crazy.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin