Corinth Holders built up a huge lead in the first few minutes of its game with Johnston County rival Smithfield-Selma Friday night and seemed to be coasting until the middle of the third quarter.
And then the Pirates hung on for dear life.
It wasn’t until Maddy Gladwell hit a pair of free throws with 3.1 seconds left that the Pirate fans could breathe easy, winning their Two Rivers 3A Conference girls basketball matchup 56-52.
The win improved the Pirates to 12-4, 4-0 in conference play, while SSS fell to 6-10 and 1-3.
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“Did we really win?” a relieved Corinth Holders coach Brandy Smith quipped after the nail-biter. “We just made too many turnovers. At the end we found a little bit of composure and started knocking down some free throws.
“We started to panic, but I think we were able to get everyone composed with our last time out. We told them the pressure was on (SSS). We were in the driver’s seat and needed to get it back.”
Holly Price led the Pirates with 18 points, followed by 16 from Tajah Clark and 10 from Khadijah Neal.
Diamond Blackston led the Spartans with 22 points - all in the second half - while Dannya Tavarez added 15.
“After we got behind we started playing good defense,” SSS coach William Sanders said. “We kept switching defenses on them and found one (a 1-2-2 look) that fit what we wanted to do.
“We had some good shots at the end but they just didn’t fall. This was almost like a victory because we got a lot of leadership and I think we’ve bonded better as a team. We had a sorry first quarter, but we didn’t quit. And we’ll meet again.”
The game looked like a potential blowout from the start. The Pirates led 7-0 before Dazmine Young broke the ice for the visitors on a layup with 5:43 left in the first period, and stretched it to 17-2 on a 10-0 run that included eight points from Price.
“Early on we were getting stops on defense and a lot of transition baskets that helped us build our lead,” Price said. “At the end we just toughed it out. SSS is a good team and had some players step up big for them. We just have to be better at protecting a lead.”
The Pirates led 20-7 after one period and stretched the advantage to 34-18 at the half. And it was 39-30 following a pair of Clark free throws with 6:38 left in the third before the Spartans - and mostly Blackston - went to work.
Tavarez canned a 3-pointer followed by three straight Blackston layups to cut the margin to 10. Corinth Holders still led 48-38 following a Clark layup with 6:22 to go before Blackston went on a 10-2 run including a pair of 3-pointers.
SSS tied the game for the only time at 52-52 after Blackston hit both ends of a one-and-one with 1:01 to go.
“My first half wasn’t very good, and Coach said I needed to step up and be a leader and get the offense going,” Blackston said. “Once I was able to get the baseline I got the momentum, and my teammates encouraged me to keep shooting.
“I don’t know why I usually play better in the second half. Maybe I learned from sitting out the second quarter tonight. That sent me a message.”
SSS had three chances to take the lead in the final minute. But Gladwell hit the second of two free throws with 26.1 left and Clark the first of two at 5.8 before Gladwell hit the clinchers.
“We didn’t play enough defense and weren’t consistent enough,” Clark said. “We just managed to pull it out somehow.
“The win is the positive, but we had a whole bunch of negatives that we need to straighten out. We might have let up when we got so far ahead, and we have to keep pushing forward the entire game.”