Southern Durham and Hillsborough Orange showed why they are the best in the Big Eight 3A Conference with a performance for the ages Friday night.
But it was Spartans senior Kendall Hinton, limping from a sprained ankle, who stole the show – and the game from the Panthers – with a 27-23 comeback victory that gives Southern its second straight undefeated regular season and its 24th consecutive win.
The Panthers have lost only three games in two seasons – all to Southern, including last season’s regular-season finale in Durham.
“How sweet it is,” said a tearful Southern coach Darius Robinson, who is in his first season as head coach. “These are tears of joy because these young men believed in us and they believed in me.”
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Hinton combined for 362 yards (257 passing, 105 rushing). But it was his Willis Reed-like performance that will be remembered.
With 5:55 left and Southern Durham trailing 23-14, Hinton went down with what appeared to be a serious ankle injury. But after back-up quarterback Jalen Greene relieved him for a series, in which the Spartans missed their second field goal, he returned with 3:18 left and Southern Durham at the Orange 38.
Hinton threw a 36-yard pass to wide receiver William Cameron and then took the ball in from the 2. After the PAT was blocked, Orange led 23-20 with 2:56 remaining.
The Spartans caught their second biggest break of the night when two Panthers players ran into each other on the ensuing onside kick and Southern Durham recovered at the Orange 45.
It was all Hinton from there, who threw two passes to Jason Henderson before converting a big 3rd-and-7 with a 17-yard run. He then gave Southern Durham its first lead of the night with a 15-yard run – still limping – that put the Spartans up 27-23 with 1:54 left.
“We wanted to stay unbeaten,” he said. “We’ve been in this situation before so we knew it wasn’t over. Orange is a good team and we knew we would be in a fight.”
The Panthers had one final drive from their 25 yard line. Quarterback Garrett Cloer drove the team to the Southern 35, but an intentional grounding call and a sack pushed the Orange back to its 30. Even with 3rd-and-44, the Panthers made it interesting when Cloer found Bryse Wilson for 25 yards. But a 4th-and-19 pass was incomplete with 30.9 seconds left.
“We had to keep trying, keep fighting,” Robinson said. “We don’t ever give up. Kendall came back and was a superstar. That was the difference.”
The Panthers took a 2-0 lead after defensive end Kendall Meeks sacked Hinton in the end zone.
Orange then took advantage of the first of two Southern first-half fumbles by driving 51 yards on nine plays that fullback Michael Bolden finished from the 4-yard line to take an 8-0 lead just inside the second quarter.
The Panthers had a chance to increase their lead when the Spartans fumbled on the ensuing kickoff, but Orange gave it right back when Southern Durham cornerback Kaleb Barfield intercepted Cloer on the next play.
The Panthers’ defense held, but two possessions later the Spartans tied the score on running back Jordon Brown’s pretty 40-yard run and a two-point conversion.
A personal foul call on Southern Durham on the kickoff put Orange at the Spartans 31. The Panthers closed the deal six plays later on Cloer’s 1-yard plunge. A two-point conversion gave them a 16-8 lead with 2:42 left in the half.