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Fight of their lives

Panthers wide receiver John Harris slips between a pair of Richmond Raiders defenders during Saturday night’s game in the Albany Civic Center. Harris and the Panthers bounced back from an 11-0 deficit to beat the Raiders in triple overtime.

Panthers wide receiver John Harris slips between a pair of Richmond Raiders defenders during Saturday night’s game in the Albany Civic Center. Harris and the Panthers bounced back from an 11-0 deficit to beat the Raiders in triple overtime.

ALBANY — Antwone Savage was wheeled out of the Civic Center late Saturday night on a stretcher after breaking the tibia and fibula in his right leg early in the first quarter of a crucial game against the Richmond Raiders.

Before he left, the Albany Panthers receiver and former Westover star had a message to his team.

“I told them not to worry about me,” Savage said on Sunday. “Some of them saw my leg (and the bone sticking out), and I know that can take your mind off the game and make you start worrying about the injury. But I tried to take their mind off that, and I told coach and everybody not to worry about me and just win the game.”

Hours later, as he was sitting in the hospital waiting for surgery, Savage listened to the Panthers pull off one of their most thrilling victories in franchise history.

Clinging to a final playoff spot, the Panthers beat the Raiders, 69-63, in triple overtime — and Savage heard every moment of the drama.

“I was on the phone with one of my friends at the game, and he was giving me play-by-play action of the fourth quarter and overtimes,” said Savage, who was planning to retire at the end of the season but instead ended his career with a gruesome injury.

The Panthers, meanwhile, are trying to salvage a season that has them on the bubble of the PIFL playoff picture.

Saturday night’s victory put them alone in fourth place — the final playoff spot — with three games to go, and the Panthers (5-4) could slide either way in the standings in the final weeks.

They hold a one game lead — and the tiebreaker — on fifth-place Louisiana and are just a half-game behind Richmond and Lehigh Valley for second place. Albany travels to rival Columbus on Saturday and then hosts Lehigh Valley and Columbus to close the regular season.

Saturday’s win not only put the Panthers in position to possibly claim home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but it got the team back on track after four losses in its last five games.

“All week, all month, really, there has to be a sense of urgency in our preparation because of the fact that it’s playoff time. Certainly all game long we felt that same way,” Panthers coach Lucious Davis said after the game.

“We found a way. It wasn’t perfect, but we certainly showed character, and that’s what I’m most proud of. We played with a great deal of maturity and toughness, and we weren’t afraid. We didn’t back down, and we found a way at the end. And that’s what great teams do.”

The Panthers survived a fumble on the second play from scrimmage, a pick-six and blocked and missed field goals to knock off the visiting Raiders.

“It was a war, man,” receiver John Harris said. “We knew they weren’t going to lie down. We played hard and we came out winners.”

It was Albany’s first win since May 11 against Louisiana.

“It’s perseverance, that’s all,” Davis said. “We made mistakes early, but we just kept plugging and making plays.”

Antwon Cutts, who’s been playing more defensive back as of late, broke up a deep ball from Warren Smith in an earlier overtime. Just minutes later, he dropped back into zone coverage, this time intercepting a Smith pass in the final period to clinch the win.

“I’ve made that play over and over again,” Cutts said. “I could’ve caught the first one. Everyone could’ve been home eating, bathing, and getting ready for work, but we got the job done. It was a must-win game, and we made it happen. We had a great week in practice, so I knew we’d have a good game.”

The Panthers fell behind 11-0 early and took an even bigger shot when Savage went down with his injury in the first quarter.

The Panthers wideout seemed to plant his foot in the turf awkwardly after making a catch. He hopped back to the Panthers’ bench, stepping off the field for the final time in a football uniform.

“It hurts to go out this way,” Savage said. “This was my last year anyway, so to go out with an injury definitely hurts. It could have been worse so I am thankful for that, but it definitely hurts. I was telling my mom and aunt and cousin that you don’t realize how important something is until you lose it.”

After play resumed, the Panthers fought back to even the score early in the second half but weren’t able to make any headway, and a 12-yard touchdown catch by Richmond’s Gerron Bryant with 36 seconds left in regulation put the Raiders back on top.

“We had to come together,” Clenton Rafe said of the Panthers’ receiving corps. “In the game of football, (the saying is) ‘next man up,’ so me and Johnny (Lester) came together for a good team win.”

Rafe, who caught an 18-yard TD pass from QB Cecil Lester with eight seconds left in regulation to force OT, led Albany with 11 catches for 130 yards and five TDs, while Johnny Lester had eight catches for 109 yards and three TDs.

Rafe’s breakout game came in his return to action after being out with an injury for three months.

“Rafe’s a vet,” Harris said of the six-year receiver out of Albany State. “He’s been playing a long time. He taught me how to play. That’s what we expect out of him.”

Rafe couldn’t wait to get back on the field in a Panthers uniform.

“After those three months, stressing out during the team’s losing streak, I just wanted to come in contribute,” said Rafe. “I know what I meant to the team, and I just wanted to come in and do my part.”


Herald contributor Timothy Threadcraft added to this report

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