The Sandy Creek Patriots knew they were in for a slugfest staring down the Woodward Academy War Eagles Wednesday night. Woodward prevailed, 58-56, on a shot with mere seconds remaining, ending the Patriots’ season short of another semifinals berth.
A matchup that better belonged on the biggest stage in the state championship with two of the top three teams in AAAA tangling, cruel luck instead set it in the quarterfinals and gave Woodward the home-court advantage via coin flip. Sandy Creek didn’t shy away from the challenge of playing in a packed house, with many fans turned away, in the band box-sized gym filled with hostile fans.
“That was an unbelievable high school basketball game. The best high school basketball game I’ve ever seen,” said Sandy Creek coach Jon-Michael Nickerson. “It was fun to do it at their place, too. I wanted that challenge, and I’m glad we did it. I wouldn’t trade being on the road for nothing. You get to see what you’re made of, and the better team won tonight.”
Key in the game was the anticipated matchup of two five-star prospects, and the matchup lived up to its billing. Sandy Creek junior Jabari Smith and Woodward senior Walker Kessler, a 7-foot-tall North Carolina signee, went toe-to-toe to a near standstill. After a slow start, Smith posted 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 blocks. Kessler countered with 33 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 blocks.
Woodward dominated the first quarter, jumping out to a 5-0 lead and keeping the Creek cold. They found a late spark with a Brian Branch cross-court pass to Matt Williams for a 3-pointer to trail 15-7 after one quarter.
The offense woke up in the second quarter, piling up 21 points. Smith led the way with 9 points in the frame, including a trio of dunks. They pulled within seven points on a Smith dish to Deshon Proctor for a slam, then Darryl Rice drained a three to get within three. Immanuel Alexander sank a long 3-pointer at the buzzer to pull within 30-28 at halftime.
Coming out of the break, Smith posted another big frame with eight points in the third. The Patriots strung together a 11-0 run to close out the quarter, including a Smith free throw to take the lead for the first time all game at 41-40 with 1:13 left in the quarter. Rice capped off the third with a 3-pointer for a 44-40 lead.
Down the stretch they struggled to keep Kessler off the glass, and he led the War Eagles on a surge, opening the fourth with a 6-0 run to retake the lead.
The lead swung back-and-forth through the middle stages of the fourth. Rice hit his third trey of the game to lead 52-50 with 2:36 left, but he would foul out a minute later, leaving the Patriots without their hottest shooter from deep.
After Kessler tied the game at 54-54 with a putback dunk with 1:10 left, Shane Erkins hit a free throw to put Sandy Creek ahead 55-54 with 47 seconds left. Kessler put his team back in front, 56-55, with a bucket.
With 26 seconds left, Proctor went up and was fouled, landing hard on his tailbone. He had to gut it out and made a free throw to tie it back at 56-56.
Woodward was patient waiting for the right play to develop. Logan Stephens slipped through on a backdoor cut, received the pass, and laid it in to take the lead with six second left. Matt Williams hurried the ball up court, but his desperation, half-court heave clanked off the rim, setting off the Woodward celebration.
Following Smith’s 25 points were Proctor with 13, Rice with 9, and Williams, Erkins, and Alexander with 3 apiece.
The loss keeps the Patriots from their fourth-straight trip to the Final Four, but Nickerson won’t sulk long. Keyed by Smith and Proctor, the Patriots return a promising core, but they will have to replace virtually all of the backcourt production with the graduation of Rice, Williams, Branch, and Alexander.
Coach will soon start working towards replacing those pieces as he sets his sights on next season.
“I always look at the future. I’m already preparing in my mind,” said Nickerson. “I just told the guys look at (Syracuse coach) Jim Boeheim. It took him three decades to win his first national championship. It’s not your birthright to win state championships, it’s extremely hard to earn those.
“We’ll get ours, it just takes time.”