Sandy Creek continued its redemption odyssey through the Class AAAA state tournament with a 73-52 win over the Stephens County Indians on Thursday night. However, it wasn’t easy considering the magnitude of hosting a Sweet 16 game at home.
Despite a raucous crowd, the Patriots started the game slow and out of sync. They failed to create ball movement, secure rebounds and play as a unit. After a quick 5 points from senior Jarred Godfrey, the Patriots found themselves in an early hole.
Stephens County was more aggressive and battered Sandy Creek inside with sheer strength. Senior power forward De’Undra Singleton made life difficult for the Patriots’ front line as he added 7 points in the first quarter.
Sensing a lack of energy, Sandy Creek head coach Jon-Michael Nickerson called a timeout calm his team down. He also called upon senior Harold Jones and freshman Jabari Smith to help contain the Indians’ interior attack.
“We came out a little nervous for sure,” Nickerson said. “Once we got settled in, I thought it was really good. I thought we weren’t passing the ball like I liked early on. They just had to get the nerves out.”
The shrewd timeout was crucial to helping the Patriots bounce back. After being down 14-9 in the first quarter, Sandy Creek found their rhythm and shut down the Indians for the remainder of the game.
The resurgent comeback was led by Godfrey and fellow teammate TJ Bickerstaff. The duo left their imprint on the game in all phases. Godfrey led all scorers with 27 points and 8 rebounds.
Bickerstaff chipped in with 19 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists, including a dynamic scoring outburst in the second quarter. The junior scored 9 straight points and willed the Patriots back into the game. He flashed all his skills with several 3-pointers, including a deep three that tied the score at 18-18.
Bickerstaff’s effective play also made life easier for Godfrey and his teammates. His court vision broke down the Indians’ zone defense and set up easy scoring opportunities. Late in the second quarter, he found senior forward Xavier Brewer on a nice dump off layup and on the next possession, found Godfrey on a wide-open jump shot. Both plays were impactful in helping Sandy Creek take a 28-26 lead into halftime.
“I always want TJ to be that point-forward and make plays in paint and on the perimeter,” Nickerson said. “That is who he is and when he is at his best.”
After halftime, the Patriots continued to expand the lead. However, this time they did it with defense. Senior Kam Miller hounded the Indians with strong on-ball pressure and that caused turnovers and frustration fouls.
Miller got the crowd involved as he stripped Indians’ freshman guard Rueben Walker and connected on an acrobatic layup. Miller finished with 11 points and 4 steals and his bucket gave Sandy Creek a seven-point advantage. They would hold that margin heading into the fourth quarter.
In the final quarter, the Patriots closed the door with a 13-3 run. They clamped down with suffocating intensity and defense. Stephens County couldn’t get a bucket at the rim and started to fade late.
Once again, the combination of Godfrey and Bickerstaff were key in the frame. Bickerstaff hit Godfrey with a pinpoint pass and that set up a corner 3-pointer to seal the Indians season as the lead ballooned to 63-50.
Miller would tack on a couple free-throws late to cement the Patriots advancing to the Elite Eight for the third consecutive season.
“It was a huge win and I am glad we played together as a team,” Godfrey said. “We went through our dry spells, but we picked it up and played hard the whole time. I am glad and extremely happy for the team.”
Sandy Creek will stay home to face Burke County in the Elite Eight. Burke County defeated fellow top-ranked Westover 73-71 and proves to be a formidable opponent. Godfrey said the team must focus on defense to advance.
“It has to be our defense,” Godfrey said. “We have to get more talking and communicating. We also have to keep playing hard.”
Nickerson agrees and said the team must keep their mindset on one game at a time.
“It is just one game at a time for us,” Nickerson said. “I am going to enjoy this one and look forward to studying Burke tomorrow.”
Lady Patriots fall to North Oconee in Sweet 16
A memorable season for the Sandy Creek Lady Patriots ended in heartbreak after the North Oconee Lady Titans pulled a 47-45 upset on Thursday night.
Sandy Creek battled all night through tough shooting and untimely mistakes. Shots weren’t falling and there were some defensive miscues. However, they continued to hang around before coming just short of victory.
“They played with heart and left it out on the floor,” head coach Janie Hodges said. “I can’t ask for better effort from my starting five. They showed leadership and I am excited to see how that factors into next season.”
Junior guard Paris Thompson was the leading scorer for the Patriots. She had 14 points and was instrumental in keeping Sandy Creek in the game. Her activity on the defensive end was problematic for the Titans. She had 5 steals and created several opportunities in transition.
However, the Patriots couldn’t capitalize on those transition points. On many drives, they had three looks at the rim, but the ball wouldn’t go in. This kept the game low-scoring with just 40 combined points in the first two quarters.
At halftime, North Oconee held a 21-18 lead and they maintained it via a half-court trap that frustrated the Patriots. Offensively, the Titans had an answer to whatever defensive concept the Patriots threw their way.
In the third quarter, North Oconee opened its biggest lead at 27-19 after senior guard Audrey Monroe made back-to-back jump shots. Monroe finished with 8 points and a couple nice assists. Sandy Creek would come back with freshman Jania Hodges.
Hodges cut the Titans lead to 27-23 with 4 quick points in the frame. Once again, North Oconee found an answer with a 3-pointer from junior Tatum Thompson to push the lead to 33-26 going into the fourth quarter.
In the fourth, Sandy Creek started to make their run. They opened with a 11-4 spurt to close the deficit to 36-35. It was Paris Thompson and sophomore forward Daija Powell that spearheaded the comeback attempt.
With 2:25 left, Sandy Creek surged ahead to claim a 39-38 lead. North Oconee answered back with 2 quick points from Tatum Thompson. After a crucial turnover from North Oconee, Powell got fouled and found herself at the free-throw line.
In a season where she struggled from the charity stripe, Powell dropped two huge free-throws to give Sandy Creek a 42-41 advantage. However, the Titans wouldn’t go away as freshman Bella Ripley hit the go-ahead basket to give North Oconee a 43-42 lead. It proved to be Ripley’s only points on the night as the Titans held on to win the game.
The Patriots finished the season at 19-10. Despite the tough loss, head coach Janie Hodges was proud of her team. She also was excited for the future as every player will return next season.
“We didn’t have a summer and to get this far in playoffs, you can’t do anything but to respect them,” Hodges said.
Sandy Creek played with just eight players the entire season. However, it doesn’t take away from an impressive season that the team put together. After a slow start, the Patriots got hot and won the Region 5-AAAA championship. They also put together a strong run in the state tournament, beating Gilmer County in the first round.
“Nobody thought we would be here as we have eight kids,” Hodges said. “You can’t take away from their effort. It was a good season and we will be back next year.”