The 16-12 lead Darlington’s boys held at halftime of their game Saturday wasn’t ideal, but it worked for head coach Bradley Pierson and the approach he wanted his team to take.

Battling to control the game from the start, the Tigers and Fellowship Christian forced each other to make each basket count in a 46-36 win for Darlington in the Huffman Center to kick off the Class A Private state playoffs.

The victory ends a nine-year drought for Darlington, which last won a first-round state playoff game in 2009.

It’s also the Tigers’ first playoff win under Pierson, who came on as head coach at his alma mater last spring.

The home team never trailed but was never up by double digits until Sam Tackeberry hit a pair of free throws with 5.9 seconds left to set the final score.

Pierson said he made sure his team was prepared on defense, going to a zone look against the Paladins.

“Watching film on them this week, we knew they like to play fast and aggressive defensively,” Pierson said. “We didn’t want to get into a 70- or 80-point game with them. So we set the tone defensively and kind of kept them off balanced.”

The lead stayed in the range of four to six points through most of the game until the fourth period when Darlington’s starting five got in a rhythm that put them up by nine after a 3-pointer from Barrick Wade with 4:36 to go.

Andrew Land then hit another 3 from the corner a couple of minutes later to make it 41-33 and set up the final phase of the game where the Tigers went 5-of-7 at the line.

“It was kind of a disjointed game offensively, but I thought we had good contributions from all five starters,” Pierson said.

JD Hull and Eli Brooks each had 12 points for Darlington to set the pace for all scorers. Tackeberry finished with nine points, while Land hit a pair of 3’s on the way to eight and Wade had five.

The Tigers (14-10) went 10-of-15 at the line as a team, while Fellowship Christian was 3-of-8.

Darlington, which is ranked 12th in the last GHSA Class A Private Power Ratings, moves on to the Sweet 16 to face a familiar foe in No. 5-rated North Cobb Christian. Both teams are in the “A” subregion of Region 6-A, with North Cobb winning both meetings between the two teams in the regular season.

The game is tentatively set for Thursday at North Cobb Christian. A time is yet to be determined.