PRINCETON — A rugged struggle between Melissa and Princeton on Tuesday, Jan. 30, came down to which team would make plays late, when the chips were down. For three quarters the Cardinals held the edge — leading 26-23 at halftime and 40-36 entering the final stanza. But in that decisive fourth quarter they went cold, scoring four points as the Panthers tripled Melissa’s output for a 48-44 win. Also hurting the Cards was losing Brendon Lewis to five fouls with about four minutes left — and forward Josh Wood following him soon after.


With four district games remaining, this outcome left the two teams in a tie for third place with 3-3 marks, though Princeton owns the tiebreaker with a pair of wins over the Cards.


Elijah Gerber and Haven Ousley led the Panthers with 15 points each while Brendon Lewis tallied 12 for Melissa and fellow guard Junior Castleberry was next with seven.


The Cards’ biggest lead, 24-17, came in the second quarter when guard Matt Holloway drained a 3 from the right corner after a set-up toss from Brendon Lewis. Princeton’s biggest lead, four points, came with four seconds left to play and provided the game’s final margin. The Panthers also briefly held slim leads in the second quarter.


“It just kind of kept swinging back and forth and nobody ever pulled away,” Melissa head coach Eric Benton said. “They made a couple of plays late enough that it allowed them to control the ending. The biggest thing was literally when they made those plays. They knocked down a couple of big free throws and got a couple of paint-touches to [Gerber] when they needed them.”


Princeton defeated the Cards, 55-38, at Melissa on Jan. 12. “I thought we were much better on offense [this time],” Benton said. “We made some shots early which, after the way the game went last time, helped kind of settle us down. … [Gerber] probably got some deeper paint touches tonight than he got at our place. I thought we defended him really well and made him make some tough moves and some tough shots, and he was able to do that.”


“Anytime it’s a Princeton-Melissa matchup,” Panthers head coach Matthew Butler said, “it seems like it comes down to this. They’re very well-coached. It’s a good program with a lot of good athletes. We just happened to knock shots down at the right time. … Luckily, they struggled from the field, late there in the fourth quarter. Our guys did a good job of rebounding, contesting shots and slowing them down just a little bit.”


Forward Ricky Morning posted a team-high six rebounds for the Cards, with Brendon Lewis and Wood each nabbing five. Castleberry led the team with three assists and Wood pocketed two steals. Princeton outshot the Cards from the line, 62-38 percent, canning 18 of 29 chances while Melissa hit 5 of 13. Overall from the field the Cards prevailed 39 to 31 percent.


The game was tied twice midway through the fourth quarter, 41-41 and 43-43. From there, Jalen Ogletree’s jump-stop shot in the lane gave Princeton the lead for good. A Morning free throw cut Melissa’s deficit to 45-44 but two Panther free throws followed. Needing a 3 to tie in the final minute, two Cardinal possessions ended with no points.


In the first quarter, Melissa led, 6-2, after guard Chase Mapps flew in for a layup off a Brendon Lewis steal. Lewis kept up the early pressure with a drive through the lane for 2 and an 8-5 Cards advantage. Princeton fought back to tie it at 11 but, with seconds left in the frame, Castleberry kissed a 15-foot jumper off the glass as the buzzer sounded.


The score was knotted twice more in the second period and each time Melissa responded with a basket. After BJ Lewis’ backdoor dish to Wood gave the Cards a 19-17 lead, Lewis followed with layup. Holloway’s trey for that seven-point lead followed. A Gerber layup then cut Melissa’s lead to 24-19 with under a minute remaining in the half. With the Cards up, 26-21, after a Castleberry drive to the hoop, Gerber’s next 2 made it a three-point game at the break.


The third stanza featured two more ties before BJ Lewis’ big 3 from the top of the key got Melissa a 33-28 cushion. After that came nip-and-tuck, with the Cards clinging to slight leads. Melissa led, 37-36, when Castleberry closed out the third with another buzzer-beater, this time with a deep leaner from downtown, (a shot heretofore known as The Leaning Tower of Junior.) Unfortunately for the Cards, that was their last big hurrah of the evening.


With lots of ball still left to play, Benton doesn’t intend to let his charges dwell on the close loss. “It’s OK to be disappointed,” he said as his team headed toward the bus, “but when we wake up tomorrow it’s got to be all about Celina on Friday. They’re only getting bigger and more important from here.”


Melissa scorers: Brendon Lewis 12, Junior Castleberry 7, BJ Lewis 6, Ricky Morning 5, Matt Holloway 5, Chase Mapps 4, Ezra Monroe 3, Josh Wood 2.


Princeton scorers: Elijah Gerber 15, Haven Ousley 15, Jalen Ogletree 4, Latez Barerra 9, A. Morton 3, A. Chouaibi 2.