Julian Alexander’s eyes lit up when he drilled his first 3-pointer of the night. As he turned to the crowd, the Sandy Creek senior guard gave a quick smile that signaled he knew this could be a special night.
Thirty-two minutes later, the smile was still there. This time, it came with the sweet joy of victory as the Patriots defeated the Starr’s Mill Panthers 66-57 in overtime. Alexander led all scorers with 26 points. His efforts helped Sandy Creek win its fifth consecutive game and improve to 5-1 overall.
“I felt like I was in a rhythm and I had to keep shooting,” Alexander said. “I knew I had to make plays as it was a tough game.”
Alexander stepped up after Starr’s Mill neutralized senior forward T.J. Bickerstaff. The Drexel commit finished with 12 points as the Panthers contained him in the paint. This forced Sandy Creek to attack from the perimeter.
Alexander was up to the task. He opened the game with two 3-pointers as the Patriots jumped out to an early lead. His energy also ignited his teammates. Junior guard Keith Williams logged 13 points and sophomore forward Jabari Smith added 7 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists.
“I know my coach wanted to execute plays,” Alexander said. “We needed to trust more and we started to do that. We let it fly.”
However, Starr’s Mill didn’t fold at home. The Panthers relied on 10 first-quarter points from junior Jamaine Mann. The talented guard was a force all night and carried the Panthers’ offense at times.
Mann scored 23 points and consistently broke down the Patriots’ zone defense. He got to the free-throw line at will but struggled to convert. With three seconds left in regulation, he split a pair of free throws that sent the game into overtime.
In the extra period, the Panthers went cold. The Patriots took advantage with an 11-2 run to close it out. Alexander had 5 points in overtime and Smith added the exclamation point with a thunderous dunk over Nate Allison.
“For three straight possessions, they trusted each other and we scored every possession,” Patriots head coach Jon-Michael Nickerson said. “It came from moving the ball and trusting your teammate.”
Despite the loss, the Panthers showed their record isn’t indicative of their play on the court. Sitting at 1-6 isn’t ideal, but continued team improvement is what mattered most to head coach Charlemagne Gibbons.
“If you took this performance right here, this is what we are supposed to look like,” Gibbons said. “This is what our group is supposed to look like, this is how they are supposed to play and battle.”
The Panthers fought back from an early seven-point deficit to hang with the Patriots. In the second quarter, they took a 25-23 lead after junior forward Reese Clevenger drained a mid-range jump shot.
Clevenger had 8 first-half points as the Panthers found themselves down 29-25 at halftime. They grabbed the lead again in the third quarter. Senior guard Julian Lynch came alive with 6 points in the period.
Lynch turned in an impressive sequence. First, he drilled a jumper and stole an inbound pass. He followed that by weaving through traffic and finishing at the rim.
The point swing forced a Sandy Creek timeout as Starr’s Mill had a 40-38 lead. Both teams later traded possessions until the final stages of the fourth quarter. Allison keyed the run with a big 3-pointer and junior guard Daryl Rice finished it with a mid-range jump shot at the top of the key.
The Patriots bounced back behind Alexander. He gave Sandy Creek the lead with under 24 seconds left in regulation. On the next possession, Mann faltered at the free-throw line and the Patriots took it in overtime.
“I told the guys that all the hype we got, we weren’t quite ready for that yet,” Gibbons said. “What you saw tonight was a group of guys, that with a little more gelling, and better coaching, can be really good when it’s all set and done.”
The Panthers return to the court on Tuesday against rival McIntosh. It will be the first Battle of the Bubble game this season.
The Patriots head home to welcome Carrollton High School. Nickerson believes that Friday’s win builds confidence after they overcame adversity in the game.
“It speaks volumes for us to battle through that adversity late,” Nickerson said. “We don’t unravel and we don’t get rattled.”
Lady Patriots squeak past Starr’s Mill
The Sandy Creek Lady Patriots rallied past the Starr’s Mill Lady Panthers 48-45 on Friday night. Junior forward Daija Powell led the Patriots with 17 points and 16 rebounds. Senior guard Paris Thompson chipped in 12 points as Sandy Creek improved to 3-3 on the season.
Starr’s Mill dropped to 1-4 overall. Junior guard Alice Anne Hudson scored a team-high 16 points and freshman forward Jaclyn Hester added 13 points.
The Patriots dominated in the paint and held a sizable rebounding advantage. This created several second-chance opportunities on the offensive end.
Powell imposed her will in the interior. She frequently kept offensive possessions alive and set up her teammates. She displayed her improving post moves and had 10 points in the first half. As a result, the Patriots held a 29-19 lead at halftime.
Sandy Creek continued to attack Starr’s Mill defensively in the second half. After holding a six-point lead entering the fourth quarter, Sandy Creek rattled off an 8-0 run to extend the lead to 45-31. Paris Thompson ignited the rally by gathering an offensive rebound and hitting sophomore Jania Hodges for a corner three.
On the next possession, Hodges forced a steal and hit Powell for a transition layup. Thompson finished the run by stepping in the passing lane and scoring another layup at the rim. The sequence put forced a timeout and put Starr’s Mill in jeopardy.
“We knew coming in that they had some big girls and we were going to have to box them out,” Panthers head coach Emily Sweeney said. “I don’t think we did a good job of boxing out and pushing them out of the paint… They were getting second and third shots at the basket and that doesn’t help anyone. They were eventually going to make them.”
Down 14 points, Starr’s Mill didn’t quit. With the support of the Panthers faithful, they started to make their comeback. Hudson and Hester combined for a quick five points to get the deficit within single digits.
Later, junior guard Ashtyn Lally later hit a back-to-back 3-pointers to get within three points.
After a Sandy Creek timeout, the Panthers had a chance to take the lead. Hudson drove into the lane and got fouled. She stepped to the free-throw line with a chance to tie the game. She missed two crucial free throws as the score remained the same.
This forced the Panthers to foul on the inbound. Senior guard Nina Lum hit two free throws to ice the game.
“It was really nice to see them rally,” Sweeney said. “They never gave up and that is what I want them to carry out throughout the season.”
The Panthers return the action against McIntosh on Tuesday. They will take positives from this game into the contest. One positive is their ability to swing the ball against the zone.
In the first half, Starr’s Mill worked to find the open shot. It worked on several occasions as senior Alyssa Angelo hit a corner 3-pointer and Hudson found Lally on a nice layup at the rim. Sweeney hopes that mentality carries over into next week.
“They did some good things and I am proud of them,” Sweeney said. “There are still some things we need to work on and we will be watching film on Monday.”
The Patriots are back in action on Saturday at the Queens of the Hardwood Showcase at Whitewater High School. They will face Tucker High School in the first game of the day.