It was well worth the wait.
Fort Mill and Northwestern, after a couple of postponements, finally met for the first time this season Monday and delivered the expected bout between two heavyweights of Region 3-AAAA. After a series of jabs and haymakers that turned the Yellow Jackets' bodies as black and blue as their uniforms, Fort Mill again emerged a winner with a hard-fought 45-36 victory.
But not for the Trojans' lack of trying.
"This was a typical Northwestern-Fort Mill game," Jackets coach Bailey Jackson said. "We didn't expect anything different. That's a good team, the crowd was hostile, with the student sections ...
"Just what we've come to expect."
Exams and an unexpected snowstorm pushed the game back twice and placed it in the middle of each team's push to be playing its best before the playoffs. The No. 1 Yellow Jackets, 20-0 and with a commanding lead in the region standings, had their character severely tested but responded well.
The Trojans (10-10, 7-3 Region 3-AAAA), who entered the night in sole possession of second place -- thus in line for at least one home playoff game -- slipped into a three-way tie for second with York and South Pointe.
And Northwestern will play its third game in five days tonight against the Cougars, needing to immediately wipe away the sting of Monday.
"We were trying to create things we weren't able to create," croaked Trojans coach Mike Gossett, hoarse from a night of exhorting his players. "We just couldn't put it in the hole. We played great in spurts, but we need more of it."
Fort Mill opened as it usually does, working the ball inside to center Chalmers Rogers. When the defense collapsed on him, led by Trojans counterpart Taylor Shugart, Rogers threw back to the rim. Cam Smith, Torrell Priest and Garrett Copeland each hit some jumpers, Priest connecting on two 3-pointers, as the Jackets leaped to a 20-5 lead after the first quarter.
But as much as the Jackets poured it on in the first, they couldn't keep it up. The Trojans regrouped to score the next eight points, and by the time Fort Mill finally hit a field goal, it was 24-17.
The Jackets realized they'd just put up a four-point quarter, easily their lowest of the season, but still had the lead. Northwestern was encouraged, knowing it had taken good shots but they were rimming out, bouncing too high, smacking into a mosquito on the way to the hoop, always something to keep the ball from going through.
Zach Beaver buried a 3-pointer to open the third and Northwestern seized its opportunity. Again struggling to make shots, the Jackets survived too many open Northwestern looks before they finally found a seam -- long-range artist Aaron Cooper wide open on the baseline wing.
Cooper had already clanked a shot from the same spot in the second quarter. This one whistled through the net and Fort Mill was suddenly up seven.
But just when the Jackets seemed to ice the game, ahead 38-26 when Smith drilled one of two free throws, the Trojans stormed back. After a Northwestern bucket, Rogers tried a 3-pointer that bounded long off the rim and to Northwestern, which called a timeout. The Trojans emerged from the huddle and Beaver stroked another 3.
The last two minutes slowly ticked away as Fort Mill tried to force Northwestern into slowdown mode, but the Trojans weren't buying. Rogers, usually automatic at the line, missed two of four attempts, and when King hit another 3, Northwestern only trailed 39-34 with 31.9 seconds left.
But Fort Mill didn't stay undefeated so long by not rising up to challenges. Copeland knocked in two free throws, Rogers yanked another rebound, Copeland iced two more free throws, and the Jackets walked away.
At 10-0 in the region with four games to play, including tonight at Nation Ford, Fort Mill controls its own destiny. The Trojans immediately turned to their last four games, all crucial for the second-place spot.
"We just made the plays when we had to tonight," Jackson said. "We didn't shoot well, but we made the plays when we needed them."
"I think it was a good experience that will help us later on," said Rogers, who scored 16 points with 12 rebounds, out-muscling Shugart's 11 points and eight boards. "We've just got to be ready to play again."
Fort Mill 20 4 7 14 -- 45
Northwestern 5 12 5 14 -- 36
Fort Mill 45
York at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m.
Lancaster at Rock Hill, 6:30 p.m.
South Pointe at Clover, 6:30 p.m.
Fort Mill at Nation Ford, 6:30 p.m.
Great Falls at Indian Land, 6:30 p.m.
A.C. Flora at Chester, 6 p.m.
Lewisville at McBee, 6 p.m.
Westminster Catawba at First Assembly, 6 p.m.