ALBANY -- The ball -- just like Monroe's season -- just kept skipping, bouncing and dancing on and off the rim.
And with each bounce, Monroe's heart took another beat, another skip in the right direction until the Tornadoes finally grabbed the rock, the game and the first round of one of the best high school basketball rivalries anywhere.
Go ahead and take a deep breath Monroe, you're alive and well in the Region 1-AAA race with all the bragging rights in Albany after surviving Westover, 42-37, on Friday night, right there in front of an estimated 3,000 at the Albany Civic Center.
Survive is the right word.
Monroe had lost two region games and Westover (10-6) was 3-0 in 1-AAA, and a win by the Patriots would have all but eliminated Monroe from claiming the regular-season crown and winning home court for the region tournament.
"A loss would have killed us," Monroe coach Marquis Davis said. "We had a man-to-man talk about the situation we were in, and they stepped up. Collectively, we had a great effort on defense. We had to win to stay in the hunt.''
Monroe took just about everything away from Herald No. 3 Westover, and then hung on to a 39-37 lead as Westover missed seven shots in the final minute before The Herald No. 1 Tornadoes (13-3) iced it with three free throws in the final seconds.
It was an agonizing scene for Westover as the ball just kept skipping off the rim.
"We took a couple of ill-advised 3s, but you just don't miss those (inside) shots,'' Westover coach Dallis Smith said. "We had plenty of chances. Rebound after rebound just didn't fall in. Sometimes that happens.''
The rivalry had most of Albany buzzing, and the game lived up to the hype -- another back-and-forth classic between the two rivals as Monroe took a 21-16 lead into halftime only to watch Westover go on an 8-0 run to go up 24-21 to start the third. But Carlos Brown hit back-to-back 3s and Jabari McGhee hit a putback to close out the third with Monroe leading, 32-29.
The biggest lead of the night was early when Monroe went up 15-7, thanks to an inspiring start by Super 6er Rantavious Gilbert, who missed two games with a back injury and ignored the pain all night to lift the Tornadoes.
Gilbert finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, and intimidated just about every shot else inside as he personally set the tone for Monroe.
"Gilbert is back! Gilbert is back!'' said Monroe guard Ted Hosley, who did an incredible job defending Westover Super 6er Malcom Sapp, who scored only six points. "We're a different team when he is in there, blocking shots and igniting our defense and giving us energy. When we step up and play defense, we can beat anybody.''
Monroe's defense wore down Westover.
"The difference was we lost our legs," Westover's Joseph Harrell said. "And we just couldn't get a shot to drop at the end."
Davis knows what Gilbert means to Monroe.
"Gilbert is a warrior,'' he said. "He gives us all he has. The two games he missed really hurt us. You don't know how important he is. We're glad to have him back at 80 percent.''
It was Gilbert who all but nailed down the win with one of his three thunder dunks, a monster slam with 2:03 left in the game that gave Monroe a 39-35 lead.
"I had to show them I'm back in business,'' Gilbert said. "We needed this win. We're still not where we need to be, but we couldn't get there without this win.''
Dequan Green, who led Westover with 15 points, made it 39-37 with 1:40 left, and Westover had a chance to knot it after a Monroe turnover, but the Patriots missed four shots in a row, and Gilbert (who else?) grabbed the rebound with 30 seconds left. Hosley hit two free throws with 24 seconds remaining, but Westover missed three more shots before McGhee (12 points, 8 rebounds) grabbed a board and made a free throw for Monroe with 6.8 seconds left to seal it.
"The atmosphere was crazy,'' McGhee said. "It was intensity throughout the whole game. But we knew we had to win it.''
WESTOVER GIRLS 62, MONROE 42:
Super 6er DyTiesha Dunson didn't win The Herald's Player of the Week award, losing in the Internet voting, but she started a new campaign on Friday against Monroe.
"I might not have won, but I showed them,'' said Dunson, who scored 14 points in the last 5:06 of the gave to send Herald No. 1 Westover on a 25-4 run at the Civic Center that erased a 38-37 deficit and gave the Lady Patriots (13-1) a 20-point win. "I just got excited.
Dunson, who finished with 23 points, six steals, five rebounds and three assists and lit up the court with a 3-pointer that gave Westover a 43-38 lead.
"That 3 kind of ignited the fire. Last year, we blew a (16-point) lead and lost to them, and I didn't want it to happen again," she said.
Monroe (8-8 overall, 2-3 in 1-AAA) trailed by 13 before storming back to take a 38-35 lead on Ashley Johnson's putback with 6:07 left. Johnson had a big night, scoring 14 points and grabbing 12 rebounds to lead Monroe, but it wasn't enough in the end.
"We just let it slip away from us,'' Johnson said. "(DyTiesha) is a great player.''
Cessily Colwell scored 12 for Westover and Herald Super 6er Shanequa Young (who was beat out Dunson for "People's Choice Player of the Week") scored nine for Monroe.