Carolina Forest couldn’t do anything about another region game that would help determine its own playoff standing.
But the Panthers did handle what was in their control.
Thanks to a buzzer-beating shot from guard Kyle Watkins at the end of overtime, Carolina Forest defeated St. James 62-61 and clinched the No. 3 playoff seed out of Region VI-5A.
“Just playing in this atmosphere, learning how to play and pull out the win [was big],” said Watkins, who scored six of his team-high 17 points in the extra period. “I just had to focus. I just couldn’t think too much about everything.”
A few moments prior, Watkins had another similar look at the basket, but it clanked off the side of the rim.
After that missed attempt, all Watkins did was connect on a pair of free throws, get an off-balance shot near the baseline to connect with 25 seconds remaining and then hit the game-winner as time expired.
It ended a dramatic second half in which St. James trailed by double digits before mounting a comeback that allowed the Sharks an opportunity to win in the closing moments of regulation. Dillon Haire finished with 20 points while Candido Ortiz-Robles chipped in 13 of his own.
St. James was playing without leading scorer Jeremiah Nesbitt, who was suspended along with a Socastee player for their roles in an on-court incident during Friday’s game. Nesbitt entered the week averaging 13.3 points and 2.7 assists per game.
His automatic three-game suspension is being appealed for a possible reduction — Sharks coach Chris Tibbits said — but it wasn’t enough to help the first-year coach against Carolina Forest.
Still, not all was lost.
“Being a little short-handed, I’m pretty happy with how we played,” Tibbits said. “The difference from the game at Carolina Forest, we folded in the second half and they took it to us. … We had a chance to win, several times.”
St. James (14-10 overall, 5-5 in the region) had already clinched a playoff berth, a considerable jump considering last year’s squad won six games total. They’ll hit the road for the start of the Class 5A playoffs next Wednesday.
Carolina Forest discovered moments after its exciting victory that it would, too.
The Panthers (6-4 Region VI-5A) would have owned the region’s secondary tiebreaker over West Florence had the two teams both finished with identical league marks. However, the Knights handed region champion Conway its only defeat inside the division and earned a straight-forward one-game finish over Carolina Forest.
The Panthers finished third, but if nothing else they’ll ride some momentum into the postseason.
“I told the guys ‘We’ve got to go into the playoffs with a win,’” coach Emmanuel Dewalt said. “You don’t want to come in with the attitude of just being happy to be there. Get a win going into it. Honestly, we’d love to play at home, but going on the road, we could play in another crazy atmosphere like it was [at St. James]. I’m just happy we could finish the job.”