Sandy Creek was one play away from dethroning the Class AAAA defending champs, the Upson-Lee Knights, on Friday night.
After having the Knights on the ropes all game, it came down to the final 9.4 seconds in regulation. The Patriots were down a point and had left everything on the floor. They just needed one more shot at history.
Patriots’ junior forward TJ Bickerstaff was entrusted with the last shot. In the waning moments, Bickerstaff drove around a high screen and roll to get to one of his favorite spots on the floor. As he gathered into his shooting motion, he leaned back and shot a 12-foot jumper that looked as good as a sunset on a summer day.
Unfortunately, the shot clanged off the side of the rim. It looked to be some contact on the shot, but no call was made. As Upson-Lee celebrated with its 62nd straight victory, Sandy Creek’s season ended in a heartbreaking 52-51 loss.
The Patriots finished the season 25-6 under first-year head coach Jon-Michael Nickerson. They were able to win the Region 5-AAAA championship and get to back-to-back Final Fours under his leadership.
After the game, Nickerson told his team that they had nothing to be upset about. He ensured them that they played an awesome game and that this is just the start of something great at Sandy Creek.
“It is extremely special as I don’t think I will ever have a team that I enjoyed coaching as much as this one,” Nickerson said. “Just to see how far along they came individually as they kicked into the team production. They already know the expectations, and, wow, what a team.”
Sandy Creek saved their best performance for the biggest stage. In front of a raucous crowd, mostly cheering for Upson-Lee, they battled and were unfazed by the defending champs. The Patriots jumped out to an early 11-4 lead and nearly took the crowd out of the game.
Senior Jarred Godfrey had it going all night. With college scouts in the building, Godfrey put on a show worth talking about. He finished with 22 points and 5 assists against one of the state’s toughest defenders in Knights’ senior guard Ty Fagan.
Godfrey showcased his ability to score from the perimeter and his aggressiveness to get inside for easy baskets. In the second quarter, he erupted for 11 points to give Sandy Creek a 37-30 heading into halftime.
“It was spread out a lot, and I kept telling the guys to keep spacing the floor,” Godfrey said. “I told them to not get too crowded and I took what the defense gave me.”
His effort was praised by Nickerson as he paid Godfrey the ultimate compliment on his game and value this season.
“I am going to really have to be a good coach next year,” Nickerson said. “He does so much smart stuff out there to make us look good.”
The Patriots fed off Godfrey’s play to stay in control of the game. After Upson-Lee made their initial 7-2 run to begin the third quarter, it was clutch plays from Bickerstaff, senior Xavier Brewer, and junior Julian Alexander that helped keep the lead.
Bickerstaff battled with Knights’ junior center Travon Walker on the glass. He held his own against Walker and made him earn his 11 points and 13 rebounds double-double. Bickerstaff also teamed with both Brewer and Alexander to slow Fagan from getting to the basket.
“We worked in practice to front him via three-quarters (defense),” Bickerstaff said. “I was prepared for it and I had to put a lot of effort into it this game.”
Fagan left his imprint on the game with 23 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 3 blocks. However, the Patriots overcame his offensive surge and stayed in the game.
The fourth quarter was the deciding factor for both teams. Upson-Lee went on a mini 4-0 run to jump ahead 49-44 with five minutes remaining. Still, the Patriots wouldn’t go away as Bickerstaff added a key bucket and Alexander hit a huge 3-pointer to tie the game at 51-51.
They wouldn’t get any closer as Fagan hit a crucial free throw, and Bickerstaff couldn’t connect on the final shot to close out a superb game from both sides.
“It was definitely an away game,” Nickerson said. “We were mentally tough enough and handled their runs well. I thought we lacked a little physical toughness. Upson-Lee won the game on the offensive glass. We got the initial stops to win the game, but we couldn’t complete the play. We call them perfect stops, and we couldn’t get a perfect stop when it mattered most, and that was the difference in the game.”
Next season, Sandy Creek will return Bickerstaff, Alexander, and a most of their role players. Several players like freshman Jabari Smith, juniors Shawn Hobson and RJ Howard, and sophomore Matt Williams will have to step up. Together, they have a chance to get back to the Final Four for the third straight season.
Bickerstaff, who finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists, will be the leader of the Patriots. He said that the game will serve as motivation for the team.
“We are going to have some more experience and some younger kids coming up with us,” Bickerstaff said. “Really, we aren’t falling off, but we are getting better. We are going to keep working to get back to this position moving forward.”
To see more photos from the game, click here.