Neuqua Valley senior Jabari Sandifer committed a crucial foul in the final seconds Thursday night that actually turned the tide in the Wildcats' favor.
Leading 38-35 with 7.2 seconds remaining, Neuqua Valley stayed on the defensive end of the court to stop a potential game-tying 3-pointer from Metea Valley. Mustangs point guard Bryson Oliver was fouled by Sandifer just as he crossed midcourt, sending the senior to the free-throw line but taking the Mustangs' option of a game-tying 3-pointer off the table.
Oliver split the two free throws, missing the second. The Wildcats' Pat Kenny secured the rebound and a 38-36 victory in the Upstate Eight Valley opener for both teams.
"He did what he was told to do," Neuqua Valley coach Todd Sutton said of Sandifer's foul.
In addition to committing the foul that helped seal the win, Sandifer was 4 of 4 from the free-throw line in the final two minutes, helping the Wildcats overcome a poor shooting night both from the line and from the field.
"I'm a senior this year, so I have to step up and make my free throws," Sandifer said. "It was a sloppy win in the conference."
Both teams struggled early on to establish any kind of shooting rhythm as Neuqua Valley (5-0, 1-0) and Metea Valley (1-4, 0-1) combined to go 8 of 48 from the field in the first half.
The Mustangs' Vin Patel knocked down a baseline 3-pointer just 25 seconds in, but it was one of only three made field goals that the two teams combined to make in the first quarter.
"It was very frustrating," Metea Valley's Sean Davis said of his team's shooting woes. "Even seeing the layups we usually knock down not go in. It was frustrating."
Oliver's baseline jumper midway through the second quarter gave the Mustangs' an 8-7 lead, but Elijah Robertson's layup at the 5:10 mark put the Wildcats back up 9-8 and Neuqua Valley led the rest of the way.
Metea Valley's Marquell Oliver's buzzer-beating 3-pointer just before halftime trimmed Neuqua Valley's cushion to 13-11, and his fastbreak layup midway through the third quarter trimmed the deficit down to 20-19, but that was as close as the Mustangs would get the rest of the night.
The Wildcats built their largest lead of the game at 29-20 when Josh Piotrowski scored on a layup down the lane at the 5:35 mark of the fourth quarter.
Patel kept the Mustangs close with three of his four 3-pointers on the night coming in the fourth quarter. The biggest was a shot from the top of the key with 15.3 seconds left that cut the Wildcats lead to 37-35.
Kenny was fouled on the ensuing possession and hit 1-of-2 free throws, which set up Sandifer's foul on Bryson Oliver that helped secure the Wildcats victory.