Streak stoppers: Fairmont edges St. Pauls girls

Jan. 25—FAIRMONT — As Niah Smith hit two free throws in the final seconds of Fairmont's game against St. Pauls, Golden Tornadoes senior guard Paris Bethea turned around with a triumphant grin and said, to anyone and everyone in a packed Michael D. Baker Gymnasium: "This is our house!"

The Fairmont girls basketball team was moments away from sealing an outcome that hadn't been accomplished by the Golden Tornadoes, or anyone else, for four years.

Fairmont defeated St. Pauls 52-49 Tuesday, handing the Bulldogs their first conference loss since Feb. 5, 2019, ending a 44-game winning streak in league play.

"It's a testament to their work, and them applying everything we go over in practice," Fairmont coach Marcus Thompson said. "To be able to apply what you learn at this age is hard, and them applying everything we worked on — we prepared, we prepared, we prepared. We do this for every game."

Fairmont (16-3, 6-1 Southeastern Athletic Conference) took a 47-42 lead when Bethea hit a jumper with 1:28 to go. Jashontae Harris pulled St. Pauls (12-4, 6-1 Southeastern) to a 47-45 deficit with a 3 at the 1:16 mark; Niah Smith hit two free throws with 39 seconds to go for a 49-45 lead and the Bulldogs' Jakieya Thompson quickly drove and scored to make it 49-47 with 32 seconds left.

Each team turned the ball over before Taniya Simms hit one free throw for a 50-47 lead with 12 seconds left; Thompson hit a pair with six seconds to go to pull back within a point. An intentional foul was called on St. Pauls, sending Niah Smith to the free-throw line and giving the Golden Tornadoes possession. Smith hit both, then Fairmont held the ball to expire the clock.

"When she hit those free throws, it was big," Bethea said. "I was saying 'this is our house'; we don't lose in our house. We gave it our all."

Taniya Simms scored 16 points with 17 rebounds, including a seven-point fourth quarter. After the game was tied 35-35 at the end of the third, Simms' first fourth-quarter basket tied the game again at 37-37. After Thompson gave St. Pauls a 40-39 lead, a Simms make as she was fouled gave Fairmont the lead for good at 41-40 with 4:05 left.

"I kept my composure, I didn't do nothing out of the way, I made my layups, I grabbed boards — I played my part," Simms said.

Baskets by Amyrikal Vaught and Simms made it 45-40 Tornadoes with 2:05 left, and Thompson and Bethea traded baskets to give Fairmont its 47-42 lead before the final stretch. Bethea finished with 10 points, five assists and four steals, earning a signature win that she and the Golden Tornadoes' other seniors have waited four years to obtain.

"It was bound to happen," Bethea said. "They're in the way of what we want to reach; we're knocking everybody out of the way that's stopping our goals."

Miah Smith scored 11 points for Fairmont; Vaught had eight points, eight rebounds and four steals.

Thompson led St. Pauls with 25 points and 12 rebounds and Harris scored 14 points.

"We didn't turn the corner," St. Pauls coach Jaymar Thompson said. "When we would get a stop, we couldn't score off that stop; turn the ball over at the wrong time. We just couldn't get nothing to fall. I tip my hat to Marcus; they had a game plan and they executed. They got the ball to drop; it's their home court."

Fairmont was held off the scoreboard for nearly five minutes to start the game, but only trailed 4-3 when a Bethea 3 opened the scoring as the Golden Tornadoes were just as efficient stopping the Bulldogs. The teams combined for four first-quarter field goals and Fairmont led 10-8 after the period.

Triples from Vaught and Miah Smith built a 16-10 lead for Fairmont with 4:59 left in the first half; the Golden Tornadoes held a six-point lead three more times over the rest of the half before St. Pauls scored four of the last five points of the half to close to a 24-21 deficit at the break.

Thompson gave St. Pauls a brief 27-26 lead early in the third, but baskets by Niah Smith and Myasia Simms and a 3 by Bethea gave Fairmont a 33-29 lead. St. Pauls finished the period with a 6-2 spurt, including a Harris 3, to tie the score going to the fourth.

The teams now sit tied atop the Southeastern standings; each has five conference games remaining. Fairmont plays Friday at Midway, coming off its signature victory in a game it felt was a must-win.

"It says a lot about those girls," Marcus Thompson said. "They knew what was at stake. That's one of the goals they want is a conference championship. We'll take the co-(championship), but they knew they had to win this game."

St. Pauls plays Friday at Red Springs in the unfamiliar position of coming off a loss, with their historic streak which ended Tuesday dating back to the eighth-grade year of the team's current seniors.

"You can't take that from us," Jaymar Thompson said of the streak. "Jashontae and Jakieya and Aniyah (Easterling), they were here for most of the run, it's their first conference loss. ... I hate that it came to an end this year, but all we can do is start another one. But that was a good, well-fought game — we'll probably meet them again."

4th-quarter defense lifts Bulldogs boys

Trailing after three quarters, the St. Pauls boys basketball team turned to its defense in the fourth to turn the tide — and the scoreboard — against Fairmont.

The Bulldogs held the Golden Tornadoes to two fourth-quarter field goals to earn a 50-44 win, staying tied for first place in the Southeastern Athletic Conference standings.

"The first half, they were getting to the paint and we had a hard time containing their drive, but we were able to keep them in front (late), and I thought we were able to challenge them at the rim," St. Pauls coach Corey Thompson said. "Tyson (Thompson) and (Marcus Galbreath) did a good job as far as challenging them at the rim and making shots a little bit harder."

Fairmont (5-13, 2-5 Southeastern) led St. Pauls (10-9, 6-1 Southeastern) 38-36 at the end of the third quarter. Neither team scored a field goal over the first 4 1/2 minutes of the fourth, but St. Pauls used free throws to outscore Fairmont 5-0 in the span to take a 41-38 lead. Tyson Thompson then hit a basket with 3:20 left for a 43-38 advantage.

Damajah McRae made a layup for Fairmont's first fourth-quarter points with 2:39 to go, and a Naishon Davis layup with 1:42 left cut the Bulldogs' lead to 45-42. Galbreath dunked for a 47-42 lead and McRae hit two free throws on the other end to make it 47-44 with 1:24 left, but those would be Fairmont's final points of the evening.

After Fairmont missed multiple 3-point attempts to tie the game, St. Pauls' Kemarion Baldwin hit one of two free throws with 27 seconds left to go up 48-44; the Golden Tornadoes missed two more shots before Thompson made two free throws with one second remaining to establish the final six-point margin.

"That's the story of our season; there's a lot of games we just didn't score well in the fourth quarter," Fairmont coach Montrell McNair said. "Competing is not a level I want to be on. They compete sometimes but they don't compete for a whole four quarters. ... (St. Pauls) knew more about how important the game was than we did. We can't afford to lose anymore games; they came out and they competed tonight."

Fairmont led 12-8 after the first quarter. St. Pauls used a 9-2 run to take a 17-14 lead midway through the second quarter; Fairmont answered with an 8-2 run to take a 22-19 lead, then the Bulldogs finished the half with an 8-4 stretch to take a 25-23 lead at halftime.

The Golden Tornadoes took a 31-27 lead with 2:38 left in the third. Back-to-back 3s by St. Pauls' Lukus Osborne tied the game at 33-33, but Xavier Johnson hit a triple of his own for Fairmont to retake the lead, 36-33, and the Golden Tornadoes led 38-36 at the end of the quarter.

Galbreath led St. Pauls with 13 points and 13 rebounds and Osborne and Elijah Blanding each scored 10 points. Thompson scored nine points with eight rebounds and four blocks.

Johnson scored 10 points and Landon Cummings had eight for Fairmont.

"We kept our composure, we were trying to get the ball into the paint and we were able to get them in foul trouble and make some free throws and make some shots at the end," Corey Thompson said. "It was a dogfight, and we found a way to pull it out."

St. Pauls currently sits in a tie with East Bladen atop the Southeastern Athletic Conference standings with five games remaining. The teams meet each other in the regular-season finale on Feb. 10; the Bulldogs play at Red Springs, who dealt them their lone conference loss, on Friday.

"I know we started the season off kind of slow, and I had the guys trust the process and they've stayed with it," Corey Thompson said. "We've had some key guys injured and we've been able to adjust the whole season. They're staying with it and I'm very proud of them, through a lot of adversity, through a lot of losses that we may have taken, I thought we learned through that, so that's helped us at the end of the season."

Fairmont plays Friday at Midway.

"Moving forward, we're going to continue to work in practice and try to get better at executing, get better at finishing games," McNair said. "We need to get in our sets a lot quicker; we played a lot of selfish basketball. We've got to disciplined; championship teams are more disciplined, and they compete."

Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at cstiles@robesonian.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.