by Rob Grubbs
When the high school basketball season started back in November, every team had a goal of making it to the Final Four of the state championship tournament. While it is a prestigious feat for one of a school’s teams to qualify, as the Aaron Caruthers-led Sandy Creek boys team did in 2005 and the Lady Patriots did in 2013, it is even more impressive when both boys and girls teams make it together in the same year, which Sandy Creek accomplished on Wednesday night in an Elite Eight doubleheader sweep in Tyrone.
With less than two minutes left in the boys game against Perry, the Sandy Creek players, coaches and fans got to experience one of the most rewarding feelings in athletic competition. The girls team had already won earlier in the evening and clinched their spot in the Final Four, and now the boys found themselves up by 20 points after slowly pushing the lead throughout the second half. Everyone in the gym realized the outcome had been determined and the final seconds would become a virtual victory lap for the season. When Head Coach Anthony McKissic, Sr. called timeout with 32 seconds to take his starters out, it seemed at once that the crowd realized this was a historic moment for the school and Fayette County. As the smooth baritone voice of PA announcer David Downin encouraged the faithful to respond with “two claps and Rick Flair,” a feeling that will not soon be forgotten was shared by everyone rooting for the Patriots. However, the evening did not end without the Patriots facing and overcoming some adversity.
When the day started, the girls team looked to be the safer bet. The Lady Patriots had won their previous two playoff games by an average of 32 points, were facing a team in Madison County whose record didn’t seem that imposing (15-14), had won their last ten in a row, and were undefeated at home for the season. However, the game didn’t start out as promising as it looked on paper. The leading scorer from the previous win against Richmond Academy, freshman center Daija Powell, tweaked an injury in the warmups and was unavailable to start the game. It was an emotional setback that took a bit of time to get over. Fortunately for Coach Janie Hodges, she had the senior leadership of guards Shan’quaylia Stanton and Kasey Toles to lean on through the early adversity.
To further complicate matters, Toles couldn’t seem to buy a break in the first half with all her shots just missing and rimming out. In the previous game, Toles and Powell had combined for 31 points in the first half alone. Against Madison County they had none. Sandy Creek would hold onto a one-point lead, 16-15, thanks to a 3-pointer by Nina Lum right as the buzzer ended the half. Lum had also drawn charge earlier in the half on a made basket that would be one of the overlooked highlights of the night.
Other than Stanton’s’ play, who scored 11 of the 16 points, the brightest moment of the first half was Powell entering the game with two minutes left in the half. She was clearly not at 100 percent but her presence seemed to restore order to the Lady Patriot psyche.
The third quarter started just as Coach Hodges wanted it to, with Toles draining a three which seemed to further steady their confidence. While they were never able to completely put the Lady Red Raiders away, their grit and resolve shined through the second half as they would hold on for the 40-34 win.
Stanton finished with 19 point and Toles added 10, with some of the key minutes played by Lady Patriots Morghan Currie, Paris Thompson, and Logan Bolton who filled in during the time Powell was rehabbing her injury on the bench. Powell played the second half, seemingly gaining confidence and returning to her earlier form. She finished with 6 points and played hard-nosed defense against Madison County leading scorer Jordan Bailey, who would score 11 points when Powell was out and only 3 after she returned.
Coach Hodges said, “Daija was a major part of the game plan, but we had to adjust and lean on Shan’quaylia and Kasey to carry us through. It is nice when you have that kind of senior leadership you can depend on.”
With the win, the Lady Patriots will face Columbus Lady Blue Devils in Augusta on Saturday with a state championship berth on the line.
The boys game would turn out to be a clinic based on Coach McKissic’s mantra of role stars instead of all stars as they faced the Perry Panthers (22-8) from Region 2-AAAA.
The game started at a furious pace as both teams pushed the ball up and down the court, playing extremely fast and loose. In the Patriot system, the game seems to be played in segments with different players taking over at different points. Late in the first quarter, it was KJ Wilkins time as he dominated eight minutes of action in the first half, including a highlight reel layup that drew a foul and deadly precise jump shots.
Then came Jarred Godfrey’s opportunity as he took the third quarter for himself, scoring 14 points in the second half after getting one basket in the first. With the game starting to slip away from Perry, they went to a full court press, which Godfrey broke with ease, once going the length of the floor for an easy layup. Emotions were charged as a brief pushing match forced both coaches to preempt an escalation that could have gotten out of control fast. Luckily, they were able calm the situation and keep both teams focused on the game.
As the Patriots started to pull away, it was Evan Jester’s time, as he scored almost at will in the fourth quarter to push the lead out of reach.
The Sandy Creek way is so much richer than just these three players, it involves the subtleties and attributes of every man on the roster. From the ability of Kameron Miller to come off the bench and apply maximum pressure at the point of attack and feed Jester with excellent alley-oop passes, to Xavier Brewer’s ability to hit the outside shot, to Chris Porter’s versatility, everyone on the roster knows his role and excels at it.
McKissic said, “We ask our players to buy in to what we are trying to do. We ask them to be an all-star in the role they are given, and when that happens, we play like we did tonight.”
The Patriots try to impose their style again as they face off against St. Pius X in Augusta on Saturday, and they, along with the girls, can continue to add to the legacy of Sandy Creek High School.
To purchase photos from the Elite Eight, click here.