Eagle's Landing girls basketball coach Lisa Horton walked into her team's locker room after their game against Jackson and screamed for joy. Seconds later, after Horton was done praising her team, one player shouted out the sentiment that held the Lady Golden Eagles together through a tenuous game: "We had to win that game."
Indeed, to maintain its place among the contenders in Region 4-AAA, Eagle's Landing had to defeat Jackson on Tuesday night. Sophomore forward Makalah Joseph hit one of two free throws with 6.7 seconds left in the game to ensure that happened.
The result was a 50-49 victory over Jackson at home for the Lady Golden Eagles. Eagle's Landing (10-3, 8-2) has won five straight and eight of its last nine to keep pace with Maynard Jackson and Rutland in the region standings.
"We're trying to be No. 1," Horton said. "We could not work ourselves up to No. 1 if we had lost this game. We had to win this one, because that's our goal, to be No. 1 in the region. And now we've got a shot."
The Lady Golden Eagles have a shot at No. 1 in their region because with a minute left, the game tied at 49 and Eagle's Landing with possession, Horton chose to run off the clock and take the final shot of regulation.
Eagle's Landing spread the floor. Senior point guard Kendra Adams called the play. The clock began to run into seconds. Adams drove to the basket, drawing two defenders toward her and flipped a quick pass to Joseph. She attempted a quick layup and missed, but was fouled in the process.
Jackson called a timeout before Joseph went to the line. Six seconds remained in the game and Joseph, the youngest member of the team as a sophomore, held the game in her hands.
"I was just praying that one of the free throws went in," Joseph said.
Joseph's teammates and coach were far more confident in her.
"To be honest, I thought she was going to do good," Eagle's Landing junior guard Mia Adams said. "Everyday we practice our free throws about a good 20 minutes. When we're out there, she's in my group and she works hard out there."
"I felt good, because I knew she was a good free throw shooter," Horton said. "I thought she was going to make both. Out of anyone, she was a good one to have there at crunch time."
Back at the line after Jackson's timeout, Joseph missed the first one.
"I was really nervous after that," Joseph said. "I was like, I need to make this so we can win.' The game was on my shoulders."
One free throw left one final chance to give Eagle's Landing the lead and put Jackson in a precarious situation Joseph hit the foul shot.
Jackson drew up one last full-court play for a desperate attempt to win, but the Lady Red Devils final shot at the buzzer hit the rim and fell into the hands of none other than Joseph.
"When I made the second one, it was like a sigh of relief," she said.
Joseph helped Eagle's Landing survive an off-night by All-Region guard Arkia Armstrong. Normally good for 20 points a game, Jackson employed a box-and-1 defense throughout the game to prevent Armstrong from finding a rhythm with her outside shot. She was held to just two points in the first half and finished the game with six.
But there was help from plenty of sources, including Adams, who had 11 points, and junior Annissia Wood, who scored 10. Joseph added nine points, while Kendra Adams and Markeya Price each scored eight.
This game was the first of three chances for Eagle's Landing to climb the region standings. The Lady Golden Eagles still have games left against Rutland (Jan. 29) and Maynard Jackson (Feb. 2).
Tuesday night was a good start.
"This game was very important," Adams said. "This felt like a state tournament game."
Eagle's Landing boys 55, Jackson 40
The Golden Eagles stormed out to an 18-2 lead to start the game and were never threatened in a Region 4-AAA game.
Junior guard Aaron Horton hit four 3s for part of his game-high 15 points to lead Eagle's Landing (8-6, 7-3).
Verdis Morgan scored 13 and Javan wells contributed 10 points.