ST. AMANT — The McKinley girls basketball team tightened its grip on first place in District 5-5A with a 61-41 win over St. Amant at the Gold Dome on Tuesday night.

McKinley (19-5, 7-1 in district) opened up a 15-point lead early in the second quarter, then turned back a second-half comeback during which St. Amant (20-9, 5-3) pulled within seven at 48-41. The Panthers then ran off the game’s last 13 points, 11 of them on free throws to clinch the victory.

The win put McKinley in the driver’s seat for the district title. St. Amant, St. Joseph’s and East Ascension have three losses in district play, and only a combination of two McKinley losses and two EAHS wins could create a tie for first.

“Our outside shooting has been very, very inconsistent,” McKinley coach Corey Grant said, “but when St. Amant packed it in on us tonight, our shooters stepped up and knocked down some shots when we needed them.”

Savasia Sanders led the Panthers’ outside game with three 3-pointers, all in the first half, and finished with 12 points.

Dajana Arnaud added two more 3-pointers on her way to a 13-point game. Two other McKinley players reached double figures, Angela Udofa with 12 and Brianna Brown with 10.

The Panthers took control early, leading 9-0 before St. Amant scored with 2:35 left in the first quarte, and held a 29-16 lead at halftime.

St. Amant coach Darrell Langlois pointed to his team’s early excitement, and McKinley’s size as two factors in the early going.

“We normally shoot much better than that. We’ve had several nights where we’ve shot 50-60 percent from the floor, and we were hoping that would be the case tonight on our home court,” he said. “I think a little bit of it was getting caught up in the moment. We haven’t had a district championship in over 20 years, and they were hoping they could do it. When we started relaxing and playing the way we know how to play, the girls got some confidence and we had some success.

“Coach Grant has a great team and there size and athleticism kind of wore us down in the end.”

The Gators put together a 9-2 run in outscoring McKinley 13-11 in the third quarter. Jordan Hartman had two of her team-high 14 points in that quarter, and St. Amant’s full-court press seemed to re-energize their offense until the Panthers finished with a 13-0 run.

The Gators made four 3-pointers, two by Katrina LeDoux and one each by Jaci Lavigne and Kara Gremillion.

Grant also said his team’s defense as a key to the win.

“I thought we went out early and flat-out defended and rebounded,” he said. “We got that 15-point lead early, and then St. Amant made one more surge, but we were able to fight them off and make some free throws.”

We didn’t make as many as I’d like, but we made the ones we needed.”

The Panthers made 11-of-18 free throws in the final quarter, led by Brown who was 4-of-4 from the free-throw line.