PETAL – With four seconds left in Petal's region opener against Meridian, Xavier Fortenberry came up with an unlikely steal and was quickly fouled, which sent him to the free-throw line.
With his team trailing 54-53, Fortenberry had a chance to win the game for the Panthers. Before taking the line, Petal coach Brandon Jennings pulled Fortenberry to the side.
"I just told him that I love him," Jennings said. "I told him that he had it and that I trusted him and that he is one of the best shooters in the state of Mississippi. I just wanted him to know that I believed in him."
Fortenberry missed his first shot but made the second and to send the game to overtime. Neither Jennings' nor his teammates' faith in Fortenberry dwindled. Fittingly enough, Fortenberry earned a chance at redemption, with his team again down at 61-59. The ball found him with 10 seconds left as point guard Jamar Jenkins put the ball back in Fortenberry's hands. This time Fortenberry didn't miss and sank the needed 3-pointer to give Petal its first-ever win against Meridian in a 62-61 thriller.
"That's my moment for sure," Fortenberry said. "That's what we work for. It felt like it was a dream come true.
"(Coach) hyped me up a little bit too much. I thought I was going up there and knock both of (the free throws) down. I got a little shaky. I missed the first one, (but) I tied the ball game up. We go to overtime, and I kept playing ball."
It was the first time in 23 meetings that the Panthers finally earned a victory against powerhouse Meridian, which was ranked top-3 in the state by multiple outlets.
"For us to get that program win, that means the world for me and these guys," Jennings said. "Zay missed a free throw that could have put it away in regulation. He didn't hang his head. Jamar made a fantastic cross-court pass, and Zay knocked it down.
"Meridian is a top-three team in the state, and for us to get this win and for Zay to hit that shot in that moment is big time."
Despite his team being down as much as 13-points in the first half, the win wasn't even much of a shock for Jennings since it's a position Petal has found itself in multiple times this season.
"We have kind of been the comeback kids all year," Jennings said. "We started with Biloxi here and got down 14 and was able to come back and win on a buzzer-beater. We played against Grace Baptist and got down by 12 and beat them on a buzzer-beater. We played Cottage Hill and go down by 14. We came back and had a buzzer beat. That's kind of this team's MO. They don't ever quit fighting. That's what I love about it.
"We have the toughest district in the state with Brandon, Meridian and Oak Grove. We just want to show everybody that Petal can compete at basketball too."
Early on, there wasn't much Petal could do about Meridian's elite shooting, which was led by DeMarcus Powe, who led the Wildcats with 24 points. In total, Meridian downed 10 shots from beyond the arc, which played a role in the Wildcats going on an 11-0 run in the second quarter and taking a 33-22 lead at halftime.
"We had been preaching all week to be resilient," Jennings said. "Withstand Meridian's runs. We knew they were going to make runs."
However, for most of the night, Petal's big man Christian Parks kept Meridian out of the paint. Parks was held to just one bucket and one made free throw in the first half, which was a slam dunk at the end of the second quarter.
"They have a really tough defense," Parks said. "You could tell they have been watching film. Every time I saw the fast break I just went up to block it. The crowd was hyping us up and giving us more energy."
But what Parks couldn't do on offense he made up for on defense as he rejected numerous shots and layups against Meridian and compiled over 10 blocks by the end of the game while scoring 14 points.
"He's such a great rim protector, and our guys play so hard in front of him knowing that if that offense gets by them, that (Parker) will have their back and protect the rim," Jennings said.
The Panthers brought the game to one possession at the end of the third quarter after going on a 10-0 run, which was key in setting up the Panthers' rally in the fourth quarter.
"It's team chemistry," said Fortenberry when asked how his team was able to answer. "Coach has a lot of drills with the runs. In practice, we'll be down 10 and have to keep running. We work on that stuff, and we just keep our heads up."
Fortenberry scored 13 points while Austin Abrams scored 14 points and Jenkins led the team with 15 points. Petal now moves to 1-0 in region play and improves its record to 16-3.
"(Meridian) is a great basketball team," Fortenberry said. "We came in with our heads high. We knew we had the chance to finally do it with the team that we have got now. We just came out and executed."