If St. Pauls didn’t get out of its first-half funk quickly, a foreseeable devastating loss would prematurely squash hopes of a Three Rivers Conference championship six days before a battle for first against Fairmont.
“With the way this year is going, we didn’t want it to stop,” Banner said. “Something had to be done. We had to step up.”
Facing a 10-point deficit late in the second quarter Wednesday night against South Robeson, St. Pauls’ boys basketball team shifted its focus to defense, a facet of the game that has been paramount during the Bulldogs’ five-game winning streak.
And with that, turned away a feisty Mustangs squad in search of their first win.
St. Pauls escaped with its third conference victory in as many games, a 54-51 victory that frustrated head coach Travis Lemanksi from the outset.
"The best thing about tonight is we won," Lemanski said. "We could have played a lot harder than we did."
The Bulldogs (11-5, 3-0) led by as many as 12 midway through the fourth quarter before South Robeson’s Anthony Galbreath nailed a pair of 3-pointers and a spinning floater in the final minute to pull the Mustangs within three.
After coming up empty on a previous possession, Malik Livingston hit a pair of free throws with 12 seconds left to clinch the win.
“I tried to tell these kids that South Robeson would come in ready to play,” Lemanski said. “But it’s hard getting players at this age to understand that. South Robeson out-hustled us and whipped us in the first half. I think that was pretty clear.”
South Robeson (0-14, 0-3) led throughout the first half until Eric Morgan’s leaner with 64 seconds left in the second quarter gave St. Pauls its first lead at 22-20. The shot followed a timeout and capped a 13-2 run for the Bulldogs that supplied a lead they would never relinquish.
Early on, South Robeson had a noticeable energy edge and erupted with momentum after Michael Smith beat the first quarter buzzer with a deep jumper, giving the Mustangs a 16-9 advantage after one.
Turnovers problems arose for the Mustangs over the next two quarters as well as poor execution in the halfcourt. Lemanski credited his team’s attention to defense along with a growing confidence that only increased after another come-from-behind victory.
“Two years ago, even last year, we wouldn’t have won tonight,” Lemanski said. “I have to credit my guys for staying in there and battling through it.”
Livingston led St. Pauls with 13 points followed by a 11-point, 10-rebound effort from Banner. Deion Gilchrist was kept quiet in the first half but managed two baskets and a pair of free throws after intermission to lead a third-quarter charge.
Galbreath kept South Robeson in the game in the second half and helped the Mustangs outscore St. Pauls in the fourth with a game-high 17 points and five assists.
Lady Mustangs stay unbeaten in Three Rivers
It's been a few years since South Robeson's girls basketball team made noise in the state playoffs, but with a scorer like freshman Aterria Quick, the Lady Mustangs could make for a formidable foe next month in the postseason.
South Robeson kept up its recent hot play at St. Pauls Wednesday night, taking care of the Lady Bulldogs, 58-36, with a fast-break attack reminiscent of head coach Lula Ratley's transition-heavy teams of old.
More than half of her team's 19 field goals were layups that followed long assists.
"We're starting to gel at the right time," Ratley said. "The girls are coming together and it's a nice thing to see."
Quick poured in a game-high 26 points — three off her season average — and nailed 3-of-6 shots from long range. Savannah Hunt contributed 12 as a reserve.
"Savannah seems to be more comfortable coming off the bench," Ratley said. "She's more relaxed when we give her a few minutes to watch the game unfold. She's continuing to improve."