CONYERS -- Clarke Central senior Cameron Stokes drilled his third three-pointer of the night with 5:22 remaining in the third quarter to give the Gladiators their largest lead of the game 50-30 over the host Heritage Patriots.
The Gladiators could do no wrong at that point in time after knocking down eight three-pointers on offense and frustrating the Heritage duo of RJ Noord and James White, who had managed to score a combined 15 points midway through the third quarter.
From that point on, however, the duo of White and Noord struck for 25 points combined and helped produce a thrilling comeback that included 27 fourth-quarter points to stun the Gladiators 74-68.
“We were down 20, it was crazy,” Said Noord, who finished his night with 18 points. “It was our fault because we came in and thought that we were going to blow them out. We came out sluggish but knew we had to win this game. Coach always tells us that we can’t lose at home, so we just pulled it out.”
The Patriots (6-2) began their march back into the game in the final five minutes of the third quarter. Trailing the Gladiators by 20, the Patriots cut the deficit to 10, 57-47 heading into the fourth on a Chase Lackey turnaround jumper at the buzzer.
“At that point, you can’t hit a home run and get it all back,” first-year head coach Brian Anderson said of his team’s third-quarter deficit. “During halftime and during timeouts there in the third, I told them to win the quarter. The message is always one possession at a time and being a young team, that’s a message that is best learned in those situations.”
The deficit remained at nine points with 4:47 remaining in the fourth when Stokes converted another tough make for the Gladiators. It wasn’t until a Noord putback layup with 3:09 left that truly gave the Patriots new life down by only five points, 63-58.
With the lead down to four following a Courtney McBride free throw, the Patriots forced a quick turnover. With the ball in Noord’s possession, the junior let one fly from deep and watched it hit the bottom of the net to cut the lead to one, 63-62 with 2:11 remaining.
The Patriots grabbed a momentary lead 64-63 - their first since leading 28-25 early in the second - on a White fastbreak layup, but the Gladiators answered right back with a long three-pointer.
Trailing by two, the Patriots wasted no time in knotting the game at 66-all when senior guard Christian Davis launched a full-court pass into the hands of Noord who laid it off the glass in for two points.
“I knew it was going to be a perfect pass, especially since he plays baseball,” Noord said jokingly. “I just ran as fast as I could and had a layup.”
With momentum in favor of the Patriots and the game tied at 66-all, a quick Gladiator miss led to the biggest points of the game. Noord brought the ball up the court, pulled up from three-point range again and drilled the shot to give the Patriots a 69-66 lead with 1:22 remaining.
“Coach called for an ISO play for me,” Noord said of his go-ahead three-pointer. “I just went to work and hit the shot. It just came down to which team was going to get a stop.”
Looking for the tie, the Gladiators missed their next three-point attempt. The Patriots grabbed the rebound and pushed the ball quickly before McBride dished off to a wide-open White for a corner three-pointer, extending the lead to 72-66 with 49 seconds remaining.
“That was big,” White said. “We needed that. “I had to knock the shot down for my team and that really sealed the game.”
White finished his night with a game-high 22 points, 14 of which were scored in the second half. McBride chipped in with 11 points while Dash Boston scored eight.
“The last four minutes, we wanted to speed the game up and let the chips fall where they may,” Johnson said. “If we were to go down, we were going to go down swinging. I was proud of the poise and tenacity the boys played with.”
The Gladiators turned the ball over seven times in the final quarter and missed all six of their free throw attempts while the Patriots shot 8 of 12 from the field including three three-pointers.
Johnson gave credit to McBride, who made his first start of the season Tuesday night for the Patriots after joining the team late at the conclusion of the high school football season for Heritage.
“Courtney does a lot that doesn’t show up in the stats,” Johnson said. “You’re going to see his rebounds and putbacks, but the energy he brings is contagious. He’s been the difference maker in this last string of games. Having him join is is showing immediately.”