Basketball season has tipped off, and the early-season rivalry battle between Fayette County and Sandy Creek Tuesday night got it started right. The Tigers took both halves of the doubleheader, but the Patriots will get a shot for revenge at the end of the regular season. Left, Greg Smith puts up a shot as Julian Alexander defends. Right, Cayla Wheeler tries to swipe the ball away from Naomi Franco. (Staff Photos by Christopher Dunn)

by Rob Grubbs

It’s still a few days until Thanksgiving, but the menu for early season basketball games have whetted our appetite for the season ahead. One particularly tasty matchup was the cross-county rivalry between Sandy Creek and Fayette County on Tuesday night in Fayetteville.

The boys and girls teams from both schools are coming off successful seasons so it was a good test to see where they are early in the season and what they will need to work on before the region slate starts. In front of two energetic student sections, the Tigers swept the doubleheader but both teams appear primed for deep playoff runs.

Jordan Brown scored the game-winning bucket for the Fayette County boys.

For the boys, Andre Flynn is back on the Tiger bench. He has coached there for over 20 years, but the players that took them to the Final Four in Columbus last year have moved on. He is working with a clean slate, but because of his consistency and the system he employs, the new players know exactly how they fit in. This year’s group is built around athleticism and discipline. For Sandy Creek, they brought back much of the talent that took them to Augusta last year for the Final Four but have welcomed a new coach in Jon-Michael Nickerson. Nickerson, who comes with an impressive resume as a player, high school coach, and college coach, brings a defensive mindset. He has a deep, talented roster with height and leadership.

On this night, there was a buzz before the tip that lasted until the end. Both sides would say it’s early, this is a non-region game, and it is not that important in the grand scheme of things, but it was important to them and their play proved that. In a game that was crisp and full of athleticism and sportsmanship, Sandy Creek took a two-point lead to half. Both coaches got the defensive energy they were looking for was there which kept the game low scoring.

The fourth quarter that started with Fayette ahead 48-45 was almost a blur. It felt like the first three quarters were warm up and this was for real. Josh Dupree and Ricky Knight hit back-to-back 3s to give the Tigers the largest lead of the night at six, only to see Sandy Creek come back. Jarred Godfrey hit two 3s himself within 15 seconds of each other, and with 2:50 remaining the Patriots were up 60-59.

It came down to a tie game with under a minute. Fayette point guard JeKobe Coleman worked from the top of the key as the Tigers waited patiently for their opportunity. With nine seconds remaining, Coleman found Jordan Brown who had snuck in behind the Patriot zone defense for the game-winning shot. Sandy Creek had eight seconds, but Dupree stole the basketball and ended the night with a Fayette 67-65 win.

“Our guys are so young, you don’t know how they will compete until the game starts,” said Flynn. “We did not play well on Saturday in a loss to East Coweta, but I am proud of how they fought tonight. We want to see how they respond when they get beat up because it gives you an indication of the growth. We will need to continue to grow as the year goes on.”

Knight lead the Tigers with 20 points, and Dupree added 15, while Jarred Godfrey and TJ Bickerstaff each scored 22 for the Patriots.

Trinity Brown keeps her eyes on the hoop.

In the girls game, Sandy Creek jumped out to an 8-5 first quarter lead with all points scored by sophomore post player Daija Powell. The guard tandem of Nina Lum and Jania Hodges were constantly feeding the ball down low, and Powell was moving in the paint with ease. As the game progressed, the Tigers continued to rotate players, making wholesale changes at almost every break. Guards Maeghan Brantley, Sidney Sims, and Trinity Brown were playing fast, and they slowly turned the defensive pressure up to wear down the Patriots. After taking a 22-18 lead into the half, the Tigers dominated the third quarter with their full court press and depth to pull away.

Fayette County’s John Strickland was proud of his post players who are getting the first significant playing time of their career.

“Naomi Franco and Celine Akande played outstanding against their inside players, who are really good,” said Strickland. “We know what we have in our front court, we know what to expect from Maeghan, Trinity and Sidney, but I was really encouraged with how Naomi and Celine played. If they continue to progress, that will open up more of our offense.”

Strickland also wanted to brag more on his ladies’ latest academic feats than the game.

“This has the potential to be a special group.”

In the end, it was Fayette County winning 58-32 with Brown and Barkley leading scorers with 15 each. Franco played a solid game in the post, just missing a double-double with 9 points and 9 rebounds. Powell led the Lady Patriots with 15. Look for them to improve as the season goes along and their guard play gets more comfortable and confident.


To purchase photos, click [btn type=”default or primary or success or info or warning or danger or link” link=””]here[/btn].