He's been a winner since he walked into the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague six years ago, helping CSKA Moscow reach the promised land in his first season there, and then lifting the champions' trophy a second time in 2019. He was a EuroLeague All-Decade Nominee based on his metronomic consistency as an attacker and defender thanks to a multi-faceted game that defines his position, small forward.
What Cory Higgins has not been known for is showing emotion. He was raised in a basketball family. His father, Rod Higgins, was best buddies in the NBA with Michael Jordan, who is Higgins's godfather. He learned from many pros growing up that keeping his emotions in check would serve him well on and off the court.
But his competitive joy overflowed on Friday night when Higgins decided a war-like battle with a game-winner in the EuroLeague Semifinals that lifted FC Barcelona past AX Armani Exchange Milan 84-82. Without the benefit of a timeout, Higgins got the ball with 6 seconds left and took the ball the length of the court to stop on a dime and send up a well-defended jumper from just above the foul line.
And then Higgins surprised even himself by jumping for joy and screaming as the ball fell through the net with less than 1 second left.
"I think that was the first time I've done that," the 31-year-old said afterward.
Long years as a pro with the ball in his hands in big moments translated into Higgins making the right choice at the right time and getting Barcelona to its first title game in 11 years.
"With just 6 seconds left, I like those situations when there's nothing to think about," he said. "You just have to get the best possible shot you can, so the only thing I was thinking about was just to get to a spot and raise up and shoot it. I got to my spot and, thankfully, it went in for us. As I keep saying, basketball's a funny sport. Milan had a wide-open three to almost seal the game, and it didn't go. And I had a contested shot and it goes in."
The clear path he cut while racing across halfcourt to make a quick move to create space and launch the shot over Shavon Shields was born of an innate calculation Higgins had already made in the heat of the moment.
"I knew their defense wasn't going to let me get to the basket and you're probably not going to get a foul call in that situation," he said. "I feel comfortable shooting in the mid-range so I just went that way. I'm just thankful we get to play in the final on Sunday."
One reason Higgins had the ball in his hands on that play and a previous one in the final minute on which Barca failed to score was that point guard Nick Calathes had left with an injury shortly before that, after having led the team for much of the game. It could have brought his teammates down, but the opposite happened.
"When you see a brother go down like that though, it doesn't bring your emotions down, it actually brings them up," Higgins said. "You've got to step up for him. Nick carried us most of the game, so we just wanted to get the win especially for him."
Barca will play a team it has had trouble with in recent years, Anadolu Efes Istanbul, in Sunday's championship game, and Higgins says it will require stepping up again.
"They're a very special team. They gave us a hard time this year, beating us twice," Higgins said. "Hopefully, Nick Calathes can play for us, but either way it's a final and we've got to be ready. We have a lot to change, a lot to change, mentally and defensively, to get ready for Sunday."