On a night when leading scorer Ricky Sears struggled to find the basket early, Preston Earle picked up the slack throughout the game and hit the clutch shot late.
Earle buried a fall-away, 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift Dalton State College’s men’s basketball team to an 80-79 victory over Marietta’s Southern Polytechnic State University at the trade center Monday night.
“We were in the huddle and coach (Tony) Ingle said we needed a big shot from somebody,” said Earle, who finished with a game-high 29 points and also pulled down nine rebounds. “We didn’t execute the play exactly right, so I just popped out and made a shot and made a play. I knew I had to get a shot up. I got it up and got a good look and hit it.”
Southern Poly’s Ricky Fuller had a chance to ice the game for the Hornets with a pair of free throws with 13.2 seconds remaining, but he missed both. Dalton State (10-1) got the ball to midcourt and called its final timeout before setting up the game’s final play with 7.5 seconds left.
The Roadrunners planned a screen to set up Sears, who was intended to get the ball from point guard Sean Tate. When that didn’t happen, Earle popped to the top of the key, faked a drive, pulled up and hit the game-winner. The shot sent an explosion of sound through the trade center after the Roadrunners had seemingly blown a 13-point first-half lead.
“Not exactly the way that you plan it, but it worked,” Ingle said. “That play could have been either/or. It could have been either Ricky or Preston. ‘Either’ wasn’t there, so Sean found the ‘or.’ Preston made it.”
It was clear early in the game that Sears was struggling with his rhythm and Southern Poly was concentrating on taking him out of his comfort zone. Midway through the first half, Sears, who entered the game averaging 16.8 points, had just two.
Dalton State’s offense also struggled as Demetrice Jacobs, who averages more than 12 points per game, had just four points in 14 minutes of action in the first half.
Jacobs never returned to the floor in the second half, and Ingle said Jacobs wasn’t injured.
The scoring load naturally fell to Earle, but it didn’t seem as if the Roadrunners would get the chance to have someone hit a game-winner. That was especially true on Dalton State’s possession before the buzzer-beater.
Earle had a chance to tie the game with a drive to the basket, but Southern Poly’s Kevin Phillip came up with a huge block.
“We knew as a team that one of us had to step up,” Earle said. “We all made big shots and made stops. We all stepped up, it wasn’t just me.”
For the Hornets (3-5), it was a night in which they had overcome an early deficit but couldn’t overcome a great shot. Dalton State led 43-30 with 1:53 left in the first half after a10-0 run.
“It was probably one of the hardest-played games that we have had in a while,” Southern Poly coach Jeffrey Pourchier said. “We made some great second-half adjustments to get back into the game and take the lead. We were in a more attacking mode, but give them credit. They executed at the end when it mattered the most and the kid his a really tough shot. He makes a lot of shots.”
Sears finished with 18 points, while Tate stepped into the scoring void with 14.
“It is insane,” Ingle said. “You can’t underestimate the heart of a champion or the desire of a winner. These boys want to win. We got down and got behind.”