Simeon Middleton dropped his head in frustration.
The Whale Branch Early College High School senior had just committed a pair of turnovers to give host Bluffton a one-point lead with time winding down Wednesday night. His coach, Lync Lyles, approached him before the seconds began to peel away to make sure everything was OK.
"I said, 'You all right?'" Lyles recalled. "He said, 'I'm fine,' under his breath. Nobody heard it but me."
Lyles never had any doubt. His star senior soon atoned for the earlier mistakes, dropping home a clean 8-foot bucket out of a scrum with 3.5 seconds remaining to seal the Warriors' 54-53 win over the Bobcats.
"When I got it, I just shot it and I had faith in it going in," he said. "And that's how it happened. Dream come true."
The win gave Whale Branch (9-3) a season split with Bluffton (7-3), which claimed a 67-57 win in the teams' first meeting. The Warriors were unable to stop the big run late in the initial contest but had no such trouble this time around.
Whale Branch erased an 11-point deficit late in the third quarter with its stifling man-to-man defense, a system Lyles rarely used prior to this season. The Bobcats, in turn, couldn't hold their lead after the Warriors began to chip away with repeated drives to the basket.
Michael Middleton led the comeback with a game-high 21 points.
"We let them get to the rim," said Bluffton coach Brett Macy, whose Bobcats also blew a pair of double-digit leads to Ridgeland-Hardeeville in recent weeks. "And even when they didn't make it, they were in prime position for offensive rebounds.
"That's the problem, the driving hard. We've got to contain that better."
Bluffton had taken a 53-52 lead moments earlier, when Adriel Willis connected on a putback underneath with 16.9 seconds to play. Jae Middleton got a clean look on a half-court shot at the buzzer before coming up just short.
The tightly contested game was the final tuneup before both teams begin region play. For Whale Branch, that means the team's first game against a Class 1-A opponent, a clear advantage for the Warriors thanks to Lyles' aggressive scheduling.
"There's a lot of good teams in this county right now," he said. "You look at Beaufort's record, Bluffton is doing well and hopefully we're going to do well. We're getting good games right here in the county and don't have to go anywhere."
Lyles was glad, however, to not see the Bobcats on the schedule again. Two games were plenty for him.
"If we played a seven-game series, it would definitely go seven games," he said. "They make us better, that's the bottom line. I hope we keep playing them and I hope we can compete with them.
"They expose a lot of our weaknesses, and sometimes if we beat a team by a large margin, it's a false sense of security."
Whale Branch boys 54, Bluffton 53
Whale Branch (9-3) -- Michael Middleton 21, Simeon Middleton 9, Justin Rhode 8, Denzel Daniel 8, Devonta Glover 4, David Lamb 2, Byron Lloyd 2
Bluffton (7-3) -- Jae Middleton 15, D.J. Dobson 13, Adriel Willis 12, Chance Murphy 12, B.J. Hill 1
Whale Branch girls 44, Bluffton 25
Wilbert Bryant kept trying to get Kemoni Jenkins to run the Warriors' offense. Until, of course, it stopped working.
"When your offense doesn't work and breaks down," he said, "you've got to do something else."
So the coach told his point guard to start attacking the basket when things didn't open. The decision paid off, as Jenkins finished with a game-high 24 points and the Warriors pulled away late for a comfortable victory.
"We felt like in the first half we weren't doing our best," Jenkins said. "We talked in the locker room, came back out and played like a team."
Bryant expected some early troubles due in part to the Warriors' extended time off. Whale Branch hadn't played since a Dec. 28 win over Wade Hampton, a layoff that was evident early.
Bluffton trailed by just four in the third quarter before the Warriors turned up the pressure and finished the game on a 26-11 run.
"I'm happy with the second half," Bryant said. "The first half we were kind of rusty, with the holidays and all that."
Whale Branch (8-4) -- Kemoni Jenkins 24, Shaniqua Johnson 15, Jonae Riley 4, Nichole Smalls 1
Bluffton (5-5) -- Dynasty Mervin 9, Autumn Card 5, Tatayana Fripp 4, Evian Mitchell 2, Diamon Smalls 2, Rickii Alexander 2, Baylor Davis 1