GARY — The first 3-pointer built momentum in the dying seconds of the third quarter.
The second trey carried the momentum into the fourth period, the third broke the game open and the fourth simply drew smiles and laughs from the 21st Century bench.
Melvon Cunningham, a senior for 21st Century, nailed four 3-pointers from an identical spot in the near corner to spark a defining run in The Times No. 4 Cougars’ 73-54 victory over No. 8 Griffith on Tuesday. It was a streak unlike anything Cunningham, who finished with 14 points, said he ever experienced.
“I guess I like that spot,” he said. “That’s my favorite place to shoot from.”
The results showed, too. Watching him elevate from just in front of his own bench and jar the long-distance shot became like watching replays.
“He was out spark,” 21st Century assistant coach Ricky Haskins said. “We’ve been looking for that spark all season off of our bench. He provided that for us tonight.”
Cunningham’s 12 points in about four minutes highlighted a runaway fourth quarter that saw 21st Century go from being locked in a shootout with Griffith to being comfortably in control by the time the final buzzer sounded.
The Cougars got out of the gates hot and held and early eight-point lead after the first quarter but saw their lead erode over time. The Panthers eventually regained the lead just beyond the halfway point in the third quarter before 21st Century senior DeAndre Gholston began to get going.
Gholston led the charge for the Cougars throughout the night, finishing with a game-high 20 points and eight rebounds. Ten of his points came in the third quarter, including two via a thunderous dunk in transition right before Cunningham nailed the first of his treys.
“That was all really important,” Cunningham said of warming up. “We needed it so we could close out the game.”
Griffith senior Jake Dye led the Panthers in the losing effort with 15 points and six rebounds. When Griffith managed to get the ball in the post, Dye appeared to have his way. However, 21st Century’s pressure made it tough for Griffith to get consistent sets to pan out.
The Panthers were forced to start heaving long-distance shots in the fourth quarter with the game hanging in the balance and were unable to connect. The cold shooting allowed 21st Century to pull away and pick up a victory just a few days removed from a disappointing 97-52 loss to Bowman Academy.
Being able to put the defeat in the rearview mirror was critical, Haskins said.
“That was the most important thing for us,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been preaching these last few days is look, that game is over. Keep playing for today.”
The advice resonated and the victory followed.
And on a night where 21st Century worked to avoid another letdown, it was an unlikely contributor in Cunningham hitting the tough shots when the Cougars needed them most. He won’t soon forget it, either. His teammates wouldn’t let him.
“Everyone was happy for him, so that was great for him to go through,” Haskins said. “I just hope it provides him with some momentum himself.”