Phillip Young sparked Fayette County to start the second half of a Sweet Sixteen rout. (Photos by Christopher Dunn)

by Christopher Dunn

The Fayette County Tigers left no doubt of their intentions, starting strong and putting the Columbia Eagles away early in a 66-45 Sweet Sixteen romp.
“I’m always pleased with these guys. We keep coming. We keep playing hard,” said coach Andre Flynn. “I’m just proud of these guys. We believed in ourselves.”
The Tigers were patient from the start, feeling out the Eagles and waiting for their chance to pounce. They scored their first points with good ball movement, passing the ball until Malcolm Easterwood spotted an open Noah Gurley, kicking it out for a 3-pointer. They leaned on the pick-and-roll often, forcing Columbia to come out and guard Gurley, opening up Austin Nesmith to drive and dish.
“I knew they were going to focus in on Noah, so we were going to put him in the pick-and-roll early and see how they were going to defend it,” said Flynn. “We know Austin’s going to make the correct read.”
The play worked often as the teams battled to a 12-12 tie after the first quarter. The second quarter was when the Tigers did their best work, starting the frame on an 18- 3 run. Whether it was Josh Dupree hitting from deep or Nesmith juking a defender out of his shoes getting to the hoop for two or Phillip Young driving down the lane for a bucket, the Tigers offense seemed to do no wrong and the defense was suffocating during the stretch, building up an insurmountable lead.
“We were stepping up defensively. We knew we had a big challenge,” said Flynn, who singled out Malcolm Easterwood for his tremendous play on defense. “We knew with their size, we wanted to push up on them and create some turnovers.”
Columbia would score the final five points of the half to stay within 30-20, but the damage was done.
While it was Nesmith and Gurley who carried the offense early, it was  Young that provided the spark to start the second half, baffling the Eagles with airtight defense and finishing with authority on the offensive end.
“He’s our slasher,” said Flynn. “He’s going to get to the rack.”
The Tigers finished the third with Gurley and Jaylen Holloway each throwing down a powerful dunk for a 48-30 lead with just one quarter to go for a trip to the Elite Eight.
Fayette ended the night with authority, Gurley bringing the crowd to their feet twice more with thunderous jams. Dupree and Holloway finished off the scoring with a 3-pointer apiece as the Tigers were able to get everyone on the roster minutes in a 66-45 romp.
Noah Gurley finished the night with 24 points, Austin Nesmith added 17, and Phillip Young chipped in 11 and 7 rebounds.


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Daija Powell dominated Richmond Academy with 21 first half points.

by Rob Grubbs

After relatively easy wins in the first round of the state basketball playoffs, the Sandy Creek boys and girls teams knew the next round would bring a stiffer challenge as the stakes steadily increase. The second round would bring another home doubleheader as the Lady Patriots would face the Academy of Richmond County Musketeers from Augusta while the boys would face the Westover Patriots from Albany. When the dust had settled for the evening, Sandy Creek would join Henry County and Carver (Columbus) as the only schools with both boys and girls teams remaining in the Elite Eight of the Class AAAA tournament.
In the first round, the Lady Patriots relied on their backcourt combination of seniors Shan’quaylia Stanton and Kasey Toles to score at will in the blowout win. Against the Musketeers (14-12) from Region 3-AAAA, Toles, who has signed to play college ball at Kent State, hit a 3-pointer just 27 seconds into the game for the early 3-0 lead the Patriots would never relinquish.
Sandy Creek coach Janie Hodges had a slightly different game plan which became evident early. While Richmond Academy was led by senior guard Jasmine Robinson, who has signed a letter of intent with Troy University, the Patriots had a decided advantage inside where Daija Powell and Parish Thompson had height and quickness the Musketeers could not match up with.  With Stanton distributing the ball equally at first, all five Patriot starters scored before the halfway point of the first quarter. Soon, the ball was consistently going inside to Powell, whose quick spin move to the basket would account for 21 first half points as the Patriots ran out to a 49-30 halftime lead.
To counter, Richmond Academy went to a full court press to slow the momentum, but this played to Sandy Creek’s strength as Stanton maneuvered through traps and double teams with ease to dish to Powell or slash to the basket for layups.  Sandy Creek would open the third quarter on a 12-0 run to put things out of reach for good on the way to an 81-47 final.
For the Musketeers, Robinson would continue to fight all evening against a defense that was focused on stopping her to finish with a team-high 26 points, but Powell led all scorers with 27 points while Stanton added 20 and Toles finished with 15 for the winners.
“We knew we had the advantage inside, and we wanted to push the issue, which is why Daija was able to put up points tonight,” Hodges said.
Asked if Stanton was one of the best point guards in the state, Hodges said, “I haven’t seen everyone, but she is definitely one of the best.”
Stanton, Toles, and Powell will lead Sandy Creek to the third round where they will face Madison County (15-14) from Region 8-AAAA on Wednesday night with a berth in the final four at stake.
The boys game was a battle of the Patriots as Sandy Creek faced off against perennial state power Westover High School (18-10), who boasts six state championship banners hanging from the ceiling of their gym in Albany.
With the crowd anticipating a high-energy game, Sandy Creek won the opening tip but both started sluggish until KJ Wilkins created a steal and basket for the first points of the game followed by a Jared Godfrey dunk from a no look pass by Even Jester.
Westover opened in a 1-3-1 zone that seemed to cause Sandy Creek a bit of a challenge. When Jester picked up his second foul of the night with 2:10 left in the first, they needed someone to pick up the scoring pace as he sat down. Wilkins took on that role as he started a two-minute stretch with a steal and a barrage of threes to push Sandy Creek to a 42-26 lead.
The intensity of  Wilkins’ play created some serious in-game conversation between he and Westover guard Kris Gardner, as each trip down the court was becoming a personal one-on-one game between the two. The game was being played fast, and the officials were calling fouls tight so players on both teams were picking up fouls that required the coaches to alter their substitution patterns. With Jester on the bench earlier than expected, Xavier Brewer filled in and quickly drilled two 3-pointers as well to contribute to the halftime lead.
While some might have thought the 16-point advantage was an indication of the how the second half would play out, Westover showed pride and feistiness that kept the game well within their reach. As the fouls continued to mount and players were being rotated out, Jester took over the fourth quarter as Westover twice pulled within seven points. His calmness under pressure, along with his ability to play tenaciously through foul trouble, restored order to Sandy Creek’s lead when Westover would make a run. After weathering a couple of frantic comebacks, Sandy Creek ended up with the 84-73 victory.
Jester led the team with 21 points and 8 rebounds, 17 of his points coming in the second half with the game on the line. Wilkins would add 19 and TJ Bickerstaff and Brewer both chipped in 14 as five players finished in double digits.  Coach Anthony McKissic, Jr. said afterwards, “The schedule we (played) this season to get to this point, the competition we played, the teams from out of state, have made us a better team, and we are showing that with our intensity on the court.”
Wilkins, who would be named player of the game, was asked about the in-game discussion with Gardner, and said, “Neither one of us wanted to go home. We both wanted to win, and we were expressing that back and forth.”
The victory has earned Sandy Creek the opportunity to face Perry High School (22-8) in the second half of the third round playoff doubleheader on Wednesday at home.  With wins, both teams will punch their ticket to the Final Four on March 4 in Augusta.