FAIRMONT — There was a different kind of excitement in the air at Fairmont High School on Tuesday night.
It was a moment the Golden Tornadoes had been waiting for since early January.
Jarique Moore was back in uniform, set to battle against rival South Robeson.
Returning from a wrist injury that sidelined him for most of January, the Golden Tornadoes’ senior leader gave the fans what they wanted in the fourth quarter of Fairmont’s 84-50 win over the Mustangs, throwing down a trio of rim-shaking dunks in the final minutes to punctuate a first-round victory in the Three Rivers Conference tournament.
“It was great to be back,” said Moore, who scored six of his eight points in the final three minutes. “I just wanted to get back on the court with my guys again and bring the intensity, getting our crowd into it being the energizer that I am.”
Starting on the bench, Moore entered the game for the first time early in the first quarter and picked up three fouls that sidelined him for the rest of the first half.
He knocked down his first shot midway through the third quarter, before picking up his fourth foul with 5:24 left in the game. But in the final three minutes, he gave the fans a glimpse of his old self, collecting a pass from Malik Arnette and taking it to the basket for a two-handed dunk that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
“I was hoping it would be my first basket, but when I got that dunk I knew I was me again,” he said.
Moore made his grand exit to the bench after his third dunk gave top-seeded Fairmont (21-4) a 79-46 lead over the Mustangs (4-18) with just under two minutes left to play.
While most everyone in the gym was anticipating and hoping to see Moore’s high-flying act, Fairmont coach Montrell McNair desired a simple layup.
“I didn’t want him to dunk,” McNair said with a laugh. “I’ve seen too many guys run up under him because when he takes off, he takes off from a distance and when he’s dunking, he’s swinging.”
Though he would have preferred Moore take it easy on the rim, McNair was thrilled to have his senior leader back on the floor.
“I’m glad to see him back healthy, that’s the main thing,” he said. “He was so down, seeing us winning these games, because he wanted to be a part of it so bad.
“He is going to have a tremendous impact as far as our defensive intensity. He’s a senior so he brings leadership more than anything else and passion because he doesn’t want to lose.”
Leading by seven points at the break, Fairmont turned up its defensive pressure out of the locker room, exploding for 52 second-half points and outscoring South Robeson 27-9 in the third period to take control of the game.
“I saw the team I know they can be,” McNair said of the second-half effort. “They just have to learn how to start the game the right way and finish the right way. We can’t afford to come out like that in the playoffs. That’s why I started subbing guys in their early. In the second half, they came out with some fire.”
Sidney McKeithan led the Tornadoes on both ends of the floor, scoring a game-high 18 points and nabbing five steals. Derrick Arnette scored 14 points for Fairmont, with Julius Caulder adding nine points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
South Robeson took a 21-20 lead late in the second quarter, but Fairmont ended the half with a 12-4 run to take a 32-25 advantage into the locker room. Coming out of the break, the Golden Tornadoes finally started looking like the team that had won 12 straight games before claiming its 13th straight on Tuesday.
Moore knocked down his first basket of the night with 3:12 left in the third quarter, capping a 14-4 run to give the Golden Tornadoes a 46-29 lead. After missing a dunk attempt, McKeithan made a layup to give Fairmont a 59-34 lead heading into the final period. The Golden Tornadoes led by as many as 34 points in the second half.
JaLeel Lesane scored nine points to lead the Mustangs, with Cameron Werrell adding eight points.
The Golden Tornadoes will continue their journey toward claiming a second straight TRC tournament title at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday against rival Red Springs at South Columbus.
McNair knows the Red Devils will be chomping at the bit for another chance to knock off his team. The two teams met in last year’s TRC tournament championship, a 56-47 comeback win for Fairmont.
“I expect those guys to give us their best shot,” McNair said. “This game means a lot to them and it means a lot to us, too. “We’re trying to keep battling and moving forward. We want to maintain and get ready to take their best shot because we know we’re going to get it.”
In other Three Rivers Conference boys action, St. Pauls earned a 71-57 win over West Columbus. J.J. Oxendine scored 12 points to lead the Bulldogs (18-6), who will play Whiteville at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at South Columbus. Aaron Revels added 11 points.
Page leads Fairmont girls into semifinals
Behind 23 points and 19 rebounds from Kiara Page, the Fairmont girls basketball team claimed a 57-41 win over South Columbus on Tuesday in the opening round of the Three Rivers Conference tournament.
The Golden Tornadoes (12-12) used a 14-0 run to jump out to an 18-5 lead in the first quarter and never looked back, leading by as many as 25 points throughout the night.
Hailey Sarvis scored 19 points to lead the Stallions (12-11).
Fairmont will play top-seeded East Columbus at 7 p.m. on Thursday at South Columbus.
In other Three Rivers Conference girls action, East Columbus earned a 52-34 win over South Robeson. In Southeastern Conference girls action, Pinecrest claimed a 59-27 win over Purnell Swett.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.