Prater’s Panther teammates noticed it too, and they kept feeding him the ball on the perimeter.
Prater connected five 3-pointers in the first half and finished with six in the game for a total of 18 points, leading Spring Garden to a 57-56 Class 1A, Area 10 victory.
“Once I hit one, my teammates knew it was on from there,” Prater said. “They just got me the ball whenever I was open. I took the shots Coach (Ricky) Austin wanted me to take and started knocking them down.”
Prater’s performance was something Austin had been looking for from him.
“I was proud to see it because he earned that starting spot during the summer,” Austin said. “He had games this summer where he hit five and six in a half. We saw how it stretched the defense and opened the inside game up.
“He has not shot the ball well all year. He’s missed a lot of shots and he’s been struggling, but I told him I don’t care if you miss them all year long. If you make them in area games, that’s all right. I’m so proud for him in the first half. We rode him tonight as long as we could.”
And it proved to be just long enough for the Panthers (5-2, 1-1), because Cedar Bluff (6-3, 1-2) made a furious comeback in the second half.
Spring Garden built a 40-18 halftime advantage, but the Tigers went on an 18-5 run in the third quarter to cut the Panther lead to 45-36.
Cedar Bluff even managed to take two brief leads in the fourth quarter. The first came with 2:19 to go on a layup by Devante Dixon, giving the Tigers a 54-53 advantage. After a rebound and putback by Spring Garden’s Josh Hale put the Panthers back in front 55-54, Cedar Bluff answered with a bucket by Terrence Scales with 1:43 remaining, giving the Tigers a 56-55 lead.
The Tigers had a chance to go up even more, but a turnover with 32 seconds remaining gave the ball back to the Panthers, and they capitalized.
With 16 ticks left on the clock, junior center Will Westbrook found himself wide open in the lane. He drove it down and laid it in to put the Panthers back out in front at 57-56.
After a timeout by the Tigers with 13.1 seconds to go, Scales pulled up for a 3-pointer that missed the mark and fell into the arms of the Panthers’ Logan Whorton as the buzzer sounded, allowing Spring Garden to escape with the win.
“Everybody wants to put such importance on the end of the game, but its all four quarters,” Cedar Bluff coach Joe Carpenter said. “I’m taking nothing away from Spring Garden whatsoever, but we’ve got to do what we do, and we didn’t do what we do very well. Until we decide that we want to play Cedar Bluff basketball, we’ve got a long year ahead of us.
“They beat us on the boards. We didn’t close out on their 3-point shooters. They finished when they had to. That’s all that counts, the final score. They deserved to win. They outplayed us in every aspect of the ball game.”
Austin called the game “two different storms.”
“We were the storm the first half, and they were the storm the second half,” he said. “Jay got tired and missed some shots in the second half. Jake Grogan got tired and we didn’t get him the ball. Cedar Bluff’s great pressure gets them right back in it, and DeAngelo (Hardy) gets hot. It is what it is. I’m just glad we’re able to get out of here with a win.”
Added Prater: “They’re hard to beat on any night. In my heart, even when I was sitting on the bench, I knew that we had the tools to win as long as we settled down and played our game and not theirs. Our defense struggled, but we persevered.”
Grogan posted 16 points and six rebounds for the Panthers. Westbrook added nine points and four boards. Josh Hale had six points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal. Will Ivey finished with four points, nine boards, three assists and a steal.
Hardy and Scales both led Cedar Bluff with 22 points. Hardy scored 18 of his points in the second half. He also had four rebounds and four assists.
Scales added seven boards and a pair of assists. Dixon finished with seven points and a pair of assists.