By Bryan App
FLORENCE — There were still 15.8 seconds on the clock, but Florence coach Stevie Martin knew what was coming.
Finally able to relax a little, he turned to the student section, raised three fingers and drew a rousing ovation for his Falcons team.
The gesture represented the number of consecutive TimesDaily Classic boys championships Florence has won. It's a record-setting streak. And Martin was just as proud of the perseverance his team showed in winning the latest, holding off Mars Hill 59-52 on Tuesday night at UNA’s Flowers Hall.
“I’m proud of the way we are able to play through adversity. That’s the biggest thing I take away from all of this,” said Martin, the first-year head coach at Florence, which became the first school to win three straight Classic titles. “We have a unity among us. We need more consistency. We can give a game away, but we have the ability to continue playing through it."
Florence saw a one-time 12-point lead whittled to 1 late in the third quarter, played nearly the final 1 1/2 minutes of the game without fouled-out leading scorer Chaunce Watkins and nursed a 3-point lead with a minute remaining.
Still the Falcons survived using strong rebounding and some clutch plays by sophomore point guard Dee Smith while benefitting from poor Panthers free-throw shooting.
Smith scored 6 of his 10 points in the final 4 1/2 minutes.
He pulled down two of his five rebounds on one possession, eventually scoring a putback and sinking an ensuing foul shot that pushed Florence’s lead to 52-43 with 2:09 to play.
Smith pulled down another big rebound on a missed Mars Hill free throw to preserve a 3-point lead with 1:30 to play.
Watkins, named the tournament MVP, fouled out seconds later with a game-high 21 points. But Mars Hill missed 3 of 5 free throws down the stretch, while Isaac Dillard and J.J. Green nabbed clutch rebounds to help put it away.
“Rebounding was one of the big factors in winning this game,” Smith said. “We stepped up big-time there with one of our biggest rebounders, my brother, Rashawn Smith, not playing.”
Green totaled a game-high seven rebounds, while Dillard and Watkins added five apiece for the Falcons, who outrebounded the Panthers 29-20, including 21 on the defensive end.
Perhaps more damaging to Mars Hill was missing nine fourth-quarter free throws. The Panthers went 17-of-28 at the line overall.
“We did some good things to battle back, but we couldn’t make free throws or get some stops at the other end,” Mars Hill coach Mike Mitchell said. “That was the ball game.”
Florence led by as many as 12 in the first quarter and took a 29-20 lead into halftime, building that advantage mainly on the boards, out-rebounding Mars Hill 14-4 in the first half.
But the Falcons struggled with turnovers from there, totaling 17 in all, and Mars Hill roared back to within 34-33 on Landon Willis’ 3-pointer with 1:31 to play.
“Just like the semifinals, I was confident that my teammates could pull it out,” said Watkins, who also fouled out in Monday's semifinal win against Brooks.
Willis finished with 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go with six rebounds.
Jacob Simpson added 12 points and made 2 of 4 3-pointers for Florence, which played again without starting front-court senior Rashawn Smith, who’s out of town preparing for the Alabama-Mississippi football all-star game, and the Falcons won their second straight game with Watkins fouling out.
“We are learning to play without our best players,” Martin said. “Rashawn is out, and our best players have fouled out in three of our last five games. But our bench is learning how to take over, and our guys are playing through it. That’s promising.”
Bryan App can be reached at email@example.com.