Senior Jamelle Loweryâ€™s left calf muscle had a severe cramp in it, but there was no way he was going to exit the game. He wanted to finish what he had started.
Lowery did just that, scoring four points in a 20-second span in the final minute to help East Lincoln past Cherryville 72-66 for the Southern Piedmont Conference tournament championship.
â€œIt was an outlet pass from Payton (Brady), he got me the ball, I laid it up and got fouled. And I caught a cramp, but I was like, â€˜Man, this game is too big,â€™ Lowery said, as the author of the gameâ€™s biggest play.
Cherryville sophomore Cameron Lovelace had just tied the game at 66 with 1:32 remaining. Enter Lowery, who broke away from the Ironmen defense for the key three-point play.
â€œThis is my senior year. Iâ€™m going to get up there and make the big shot,â€ Lowery recalled thinking.
After 6-foot-7 sophomore Justin Johnson had single-handedly kept the Ironmen in the game, with 24 points and 13 rebounds, but was whistled for his fifth foul with 2:58 left on the clock.
With Johnsonâ€™s departure, much to the delight of the Mustangsâ€™ faithful, leaving the throng of Ironmen fans wondering what might have been, the Mustangs did just enough in the end to win its first title of the season.
â€œItâ€™s a nice victory. Weâ€™re real pleased to be able to have won it. Our kids played hard. We had a couple of rough spots, but we fought through it,â€ East Lincoln head coach Neil Hodges said.
While Lowery turned in the biggest play, it was Trishtan Johnsonâ€™s performance that showed why he was renowned as one of the top two players in the Southern Piedmont.
Johnson was forced to rely on his ability to draw fouls after twisting his ankle in the first half. It was a strategy that paid off big dividends, as he connected on 15 of a school record 18 attempts from the charity stripe on his way to a game-high 28 points.
â€œIt was hurting me the whole game, I couldnâ€™t drive,â€ Johnson said. â€œI decided not to shoot, just drive and try to get fouled. Every time I shot, it felt like my ankle was coming apart,â€ he added.
East Lincolnâ€™s Robin (Lowery) to Johnsonâ€™s Batman also did plenty of damage from the line, knocking down nine of 13 en route to 23 points.
â€œTheyâ€™re two seniors, with good leadership, and both of them are great players,â€ Hodges said of the Southern Piedmontâ€™s best guard combo. â€œNow is the time to step it up and they did just that,â€ he added.
As much joy as the Mustangs felt, Cherryvilleâ€™s star was just as disappointed, after failing to give head coach Scott Harrill his first conference tournament championship.
â€œI left it all out on the court. We didnâ€™t get the ball inside, so that counted a lot towards our loss too,â€ Johnson said.
Lovelace and senior Antonio Griggs each complemented Johnsonâ€™s 24-point effort with 14 for the Ironmen (24-3) Griggs had 11 of those in the first quarter.
â€œCherryville is a good team. Theyâ€™re going to make you make the plays, so weâ€™re very pleased to get the victory and we wish them the best of luck in the state playoffs,â€ Hodges, whose team will play the winner of Hibriten/Monroe on Thursday in the second round of the 2A State Playoffs, said.
Johnson led the Mustangs with five steals, while fellow-senior Thomas Huntley did all the little things, adding nine assists, four steals and six rebounds.
East Lincoln had built its lead to as much as 11 in the third quarter before the Ironmen came storming back.
â€œWe kind of started panicking and getting out of control. As seniors, me and Trishtan had to step up and make plays for our team, because we didnâ€™t want this win to slip away from us,â€ Lowery said. â€œWe got the ball in our hands and made the plays at the end and we came out on top,â€ he added.
For the Mustangs, it was sweet redemption, after failing to win the Southern Piedmontâ€™s regular-season title and failing to come away with the hardware in the First Charter Holiday Classic tournament.
â€œThe Holiday Classic was just for fun, but this one right here, we got serious with it. It was from the heart,â€ Johnson said. â€œWe came together and tried to win this game. We were motivated, everybody talked real good on the court and we were able to come out with the win,â€ he added.
Trishtan Johnson drives past Jamelle Jefferies, who had 10 points, on the baseline for two of his 28 points. Chris Dean / LTN Photo
by John Mark Brooks