Through all the ups and downs Friday night, the Pine Forest High girls basketball team remained composed.
The result was a resounding 55-42 victory on the road against the Eagles' District 1-6A rival, Pensacola High. The win keeps Pine Forest (9-1, 8-0 District 1-6A) undefeated in district play and gives the Eagles some much-needed momentum in their quest to contend for the Class 6A state title.
Throughout the night, nothing seemed to shake up the Eagles. Not the big, sell-out crowd at the Tigers' gymnasium. Not the fact that four starters were hit with two fouls each in the game's opening minutes. And not the fact that the Eagles missed numerous open shots in the first quarter.
Pine Forest survived it all, grabbed a 10-8 lead after the first eight minutes, and continuously chipped away at the Tigers.
"I can say this: We stepped up tonight," Eagles coach Chris Godwin said. "When our starters got into foul trouble, the bench stepped up. I told them that defense wins games, and our defense was great. We pounded the boards. They just did a great job."
Seniors Tia Sanders and Jayla King -- both of whom are four-year starters -- led the way for the Eagles, helping to hold off a scrappy PHS team that's been to the state Final Four the past five seasons and six out of the past seven.
Sanders scored a team-high 15 points and doled out six assists, while King scored 13 -- including a 3-pointer in the game's final seconds -- and pulled down 15 rebounds.
"We knew we could do it," Sanders said of the win. "But we went out there and made it so much better. Even though four of us were in foul trouble to start the game, the bench stepped up like we knew they could. And it just feels good."
The Tigers (7-1, 7-1) rallied in the third quarter after a layup from senior Kayla Thompson was followed by six consecutive points from senior forward Chelsea Gibson to tie the game 28-28.
But that's when Sanders got to work herself, making back-to-back jump shots. Njeri Nelms -- who was one of the bench players to make a big impact for the Eagles -- then extended the lead to 34-28 with a 2-pointer just inside the arc with 3:02 left in the quarter.
Nelms finished with seven points on the night.
"Tia was shooting really well, and Njeri stepped up, and Jayla killed the boards," Godwin said. "They all just played really well together tonight, and it came at a good time because we were missing too many easy shots. But our defense kept us in it."
Despite a strong effort from Gibson -- who finished with a game-high 19 points -- the Tigers were able to come within only eight points of the Eagles during the fourth quarter.
The Tigers struggled with rebounds and from the free-throw line, going 12-for-28 from the charity stripe. The Eagles, however, shook off their first-quarter mishaps to play a solid game throughout the night.
"We just played our game like we knew we were supposed to," Sanders said. "Now, we're going to win districts."
At Pensacola High
PINE FOREST 55, PHS 42
Pine Forest...10 12 19 14--55
PHS...8 10 15 9--42
Pine Forest (9-1, 8-0 District 1-6A) -- Tia Sanders 15, Jayla King 13, Britney Snowden 7, Njeri Nelms 7, Ty Purifoy 7, Jasmine McCants 4, Latonya Miller 2.
Stats: King 15 rebounds; Snowden 13 rebounds; Sanders 6 assists, 4 steals; Purifoy 7 assists; Miller 4 steals.
PHS (7-1, 7-1 District 1-6A) -- Shamina Hunter 6, Kayla Pritchett 7, Kayla Thompson 4, D'Arcy Draper 6, Chelsea Gibson 19.
Stats: Thompson 7 rebounds, 1 block, 2 steals; Draper 10 rebounds, 3 blocks; Gibson 4 rebounds, 2 steals; Hunter 4 steals.