The stage was set for East Lincoln to pull an upset over the East Gaston Warriors, literally. With bleachers filled to capacity, on both sides, extra chairs had to be set up on the stage behind one of the baskets.
While the Mustangs laid it all out on Senior Night, the Warriors made enough plays down the stretch to win by a Hare. With 16.5 seconds left, Corey Hare stepped to the line, ignored the raucous crowd, netting two free throws to give East Gaston a two-possession lead at 59-54.
Ivory Craig hit two more free-throws to lift the Warriors (18-4, 9-4) to a 61-54 victory.
There were four lead changes in the first half to go along with five ties. East Lincolnâ€™s lack of execution was crucial, as three of their last seven possessions ended with a turnover in the final minutes.
â€œDown the stretch, they executed better than we did. We were willing, we picked up the effort, but I knew when we started fouling early it would come back and bite us,â€ Mustangsâ€™ head coach Neil Hodges said.
Carlos-Marquez Sykes, one of five seniors, scored a lay-up to bring his Mustangs to within a point at 53-52 with 2:42 remaining in the game. East Gaston was forced to call a timeout due to the 5-0 run.
Demetric Sanders, who had seven fourth-quarter points, found himself free on the inside making a lay-up to put the visitors back up 55-52, in what turned out to be a critical basket.
East Gaston went on an 8-0 run to begin the second quarter turning a two-point deficit into a six-point lead at 18-12.
Darin Dellinger, who was recognized for breaking Allen Brothertonâ€™s (1978) school record (315) for career assists with 339 and counting, strung together six-straight points to help rally East Lincoln in the final minutes of the first half.
A Jamelle Lowery baseline jumper tied the game at 25-25, but just as they did the whole game the Warriors answered quickly. Craig nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key, with a defender in his face, to give East Gaston a 28-25 halftime advantage.
After the Mustangs whittled the lead to 40-37, on a Wayne White 3-pointer with 20 seconds left, Craig threw up a shot from the right wing banking in a 3-pointer for his second buzzer beater of the night.
Craigâ€™s last second shots did more damage to the Mustangsâ€™ psyche than on the scoreboard.
Hodges believed his team fouling so much at the beginning of the second half was also detrimental to their chances.
â€œThe first three minutes, we made four fouls and that stuff comes back to haunt you. They made the foul shots,â€ he said.
All five members of the Warriors scored in double figures, led by Sanders with 14. Craig and Hare both scored 12.
East Gaston connected made 19-of-36 for a 52.7 field goal percentage, while East Lincoln made 17-of-37 for 45.9.
Despite not getting the win, the Mustangs (13-9, 6-7) have played solid basketball for the past few weeks. That play has earned them a chance to finish as high in the Big South 3A as fourth place.
â€œWeâ€™ve been playing very well for the last month. Weâ€™ve been playing very hard. Our kids give it all they got and itâ€™s unfortunate we couldnâ€™t get one in the left side tonight (win column) but we have to come back tomorrow and get a little better at practice,â€ Hodges said.
South Point beckons on Friday. For any shot at qualifying for the 3A State Playoffs, during the regular season, Hodges is viewing that game as a must-win.
â€œIf we got a shot we have to win, and we donâ€™t know until everything comes out tonight. But you could always win the tournament (Big South 3A one), so we got a lot of stuff to play for,â€ he said.
Dellinger, who led the Mustangs with 12 points and had several assists, was in disbelief, he had just played his last home game.
â€œIt was emotional. Iâ€™m going to miss this place a lot,â€ he said.
Before the game, Hodges presented Dellinger with a game ball that will have his career number of assists written on it when this season is over. And before the game even started he dished out his most special assist, giving the ball to his grandmother.
â€œCoach (Chip) Ashley snuck it by me, I didnâ€™t know I had it. I was surprised, happy, everything. She doesnâ€™t make it out to many games, but sheâ€™s everything to me.â€
Dellinger along with Josh Davis (eight points) and Marquez-Sykes (nine points) are now focused on their ultimate goal, which is making the playoffs.
â€œWe got a chance Friday to redeem ourselves and hopefully weâ€™ll get a shot at the playoffs. Thatâ€™s what weâ€™ve been working for, myself Josh and Carlos for three years.â€
The Diversity Awareness Dance/Step Team received perhaps the largest ovation of the night at halftime. Team members are: Brent Brown, Miracle Colon, Ashley Gilroy, Nicole Kirk, Courtney McClure, Josh McCray, Kelsey McGalliard, Jasmine McLean, Devan Richburg, Jasman Roseboro, Frankerra Simpson, Kara Smith, Zerrie Stewart, Kornesha Swinton, Portia Thompson, Brooke Rudolph, Tyree Watkins. The team is coached by Raul Ramos, Cassandra McCray and Andera Poovey.
Gilroy and Roseboro are Co-Captains of the team.
East Gaston 10 18 15 18-61
East Lincoln 12 13 12 17-54
WARRIORS: Corey Hare 12, Eric Hare 11, Ivory Craig 12, Sean Helms 11, Demetric Sanders 14.
MUSTANGS: Darin Dellinger 12, Devin Carter 7, Jamelle Lowery 11, Carlos Marquez-Sykes 9, Josh Davis 8, Wayne White 5. Carter had four steals.
Jamelle Lowery guards Ivory Craig during Tuesday nightâ€™s game. Craig nailed two buzzer beaters. Chris Dean / LTN Photo
by John Mark Brooks