KENNEWICK -- Nothing has come easy for the Tri-Cities Fever this season. Not even its first victory.
The Fever spotted the visiting Fair-banks Grizzlies a 20-0 lead in the first quarter, then rallied with a 30-0 run, and only came away with a 44-39 Indoor Football League win when the Tri-Cities defense had to put together a goal-line stand in the waning seconds to hold on before an estimated 3,100 breathless fans at the Toyota Center.
"I thought it was fitting that our defense finished the way it did," said Tri-Cities coach Adam Shackleford, who pumped his fist when the clock struck zero as his team improved to 1-3. "I told our defensive coordinator (Ryan Lingenfelder) that if his defense could hold (Fairbanks) to 50, I think we could score 51."
It didn't look so good in the first quarter.
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The Grizzlies (4-2) scored on their first three possessions -- Justin Rummell TD passes of 19 yards to Lonnie Sanders and 18 to Anthony Parks, and a 1-yard run by Sanders -- for a 20-0 lead.
"Man, it was looking ugly," said Fever defensive back Montavis Pitts. "But we didn't want to point any fingers. We had to settle down."
Which is what happened.
Fairbanks was looking to score early in the second quarter when Fever defensive back Carldayle Brantley picked off Rummell in the end zone to stop the drive.
Tri-Cities quarterback Andy Collins then started to get untracked, moving the team45 yards in five plays and hitting Thryon Lewis for a 5-yard scoring strike to cut the Grizzlies lead to 20-7.
In fact, the Fever exploded for 24 second-quarter points -- 17 of them coming in the final 1:27 -- to close to within 33-24 at halftime.
The key play was Pitts intercepting a Rummell pass near midfield and returning it down to the Fairbanks 3. Two plays later, Collins hit Lewis again for a 6-yard TD pass.
The Fever got the ball first in the second half, and Collins connected with Kevin Heard on a 4-yard TD to cut the Grizzlies lead to 33-31.
"We started figuring out how (the Grizzlies) were playing our quads (four-receiver sets)," said Collins, who finished with 136 yards passing and four TD passes. "But our defense came up big. How many interceptions did they have?"
The answer would be four -- and none bigger than the one Pitts had on the next series.
Rummell, trying to answer Collins, faded back from the Tri-Cities 11 when Fever linebacker Kwame Agyeman came flying through and hit the Fairbanks quarterback right at the pass release.
The ball popped up in the air and landed in Pitts' arms at the 3, and he returned it 47 yards for a touchdown to give the Fever a 38-33 lead. Tri-Cities would never trail again.
On the next series, Fever DB DeVon Walker intercepted a pass in the end zone to stop another drive.
The teams traded touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Tri-Cities leading 44-39, and Fairbanks holding the ball on its own 5 with 1:08 to play and no timeouts left.
Rummell moved his team methodically down the field until he had a 1st-and-4 situation with 42 seconds left and the clock running.
Two incomplete passes -- and then a 3-yarder to Josh Crawford -- left the Grizzlies with a 4th-and-1 with 19.9 seconds left.
Fairbanks coach Sean Ponder brought 6-foot-4, 295-pound Asi Faoa into the game at that point.
"I knew they were going to try to sneak it in," said Fever defensive lineman Curtis Terry. "I figured we needed to get a big push. Everyone knew the game was on the line."
So the Ohio State product, along with his D-line mates Blair Boynton and Fred Poole, surged forward when Rummell handed the ball to Faoa. The three held the movement up as linebacker Derek Nicholson sprinted up to stop a second surge.
Pitts finished things off as Faoa tried to spin out.
"I squeezed in and just tried to hold (Faoa) up," said Pitts.
The ball was spotted just inches from the goal line, and the Fever offense ran out the clock.
"I'm proud of our composure," said Shackleford. "I'm just happy for these guys."