It was a pressure shot and Connor Crabtree had been the relief valve for Orange all night.
Southern had clawed back from a 13-point third period deficit, and with just three ticks showing on the game clock, and Orange trailing 79-78, the Spartans were about to stain the Panthers’ unblemished Big 8 3A record.
Amazingly, forcefully, Crabtree worked his way upcourt to the basket, fired up a shot, and it was money. As the final buzzer sounded on the Panthers’ 80-79 victory, a horde of Orange faithful stormed the court to celebrate the Panthers’ 7-0 conference streak, and to offer a congratulatory, bounding swarm to the UNC-Asheville recruit and his teammates.
“He’s an offensive machine, man, that’s all I can say. He knows how to put the ball in the hole,” Orange coach Greg Motley said.
Crabtree had 34 points.
“Pretty much all we set up was just a screen at the top of the key, and I just worked off of that,” Crabtree said. “I didn’t have much space to work with, but the shot went in, and I’ll take that any day. It was exciting.”
With just four games remaining, Orange is sitting pretty in the chase for the conference crown with no losses.
“I’ve never been on a team this good, and I’ve never been on a championship team, so it feels good to be on top,” said Logan Vosburg, who finished with 25 points, including four 3-pointers in the first half.
“If he can step up and make those 3s that just opens up the game for everybody,” Motley said.
Panthers ball-handler Mitch Portman fouled out in the third quarter, and Crabtree said that affected the tempo of the game.
“That hurt us a lot. I had to handle the ball a lot more, and I definitely got tired,” he said. Southern didn’t make it any easier on him.
“They’re definitely physical, but that’s good for our team,” Crabtree said. “We learned a lot from that, so that will help us move forward.”
That same period the Spartans came roaring back. Having trailed by as many as 13 points at several spots in the third period, and as late as 4:01. But Southern went on a 23-12 run to end the period down a basket at 66-64, and tied the game on a basket by Omri Moore to open the final period. Moore led Southern with 27 points, followed by Antonio Daye Jr. with 22.
“We just try to keep them so we don’t panic mode,” Motley said. “We’ve got two seniors who’ve been through this a bunch, so we didn’t panic.”
The final period was a wild affair. The score was tied three times, and each teach had a lead on four separate occasions.
Leading 75-74 at 3:26, Southern froze the ball to protect its lead. But a shot by Brown was ruled out of bounds, and Orange got the ball back.
A free throw by Moore made it 76-74, and then Crabtree began to work his magic. At 1:16 he drove the baseline for a layup to tie the game at 76. With 48 seconds left he drove the baseline again, going past the basket and tossing the ball back over his head to give Orange a 78-76 lead. Both plays were set up with screens.
But with 17 seconds to play Southern’s Rashad Dixon made a huge play, bouncing off of Orange defenders under the basket and still managing to somehow get a shot off as he fell to the floor on his backside, giving the Spartans their last lead, 79-78.