The bar for Game of the Year in the county has already been set awfully high with a thrilling opening night showdown between Sandy Creek and Fayette County. The Tiger boys went on the road and shook off an ice cold start, rallying to topple a tremendous Patriot squad in a 75-69 win.
The much-anticipated meeting of the longtime rivals did not disappoint. Both came into the game highly regarded, not just in the area, but around the state. The popular Sandy’s Spiel ranked Sandy Creek number two in AAAA and Fayette County number nine in AAAAA. Thanks to graduation and transfers, Sandy Creek only has one starter back in the fold, Evan Jester, but they are loaded with the height and athleticism that will make them a title threat this year. Fayette County is blessed with more returning talent, specifically the core of Austin Nesmith, Noah Gurley, and Phillip Young. After things went poorly early, the Tigers would turn to those senior leaders to right the ship.
“It was an ugly game early. What we did was we kept fighting. We never gave up,” said Fayette head coach Andre Flynn. “Sandy Creek is a very good team. They had a lot of energy. We had to take their best punch, and we did.”
The opening stages of the game could not have gone any worse for the Tigers. The length and athleticism of the Patriots had them reeling, and they could not make their own shots or even free throws as they limped out to 17-4 deficit.
“We’re a strong team, and we can score. We only had 4 points, but I didn’t panic,” said Flynn. “I just knew we had to hurry up and get one bucket. Once we get one basket, we’ll be good.”
Early on, it felt like the officials were determined to make themselves the stars of the game. They called a combined 18 fouls and 3 technical fouls in the first quarter alone, leading to both teams in the double bonus much of the second quarter and prolonged foul trouble for a number of players on both teams.
The game belonged to the Patriots early on as they fed off the energy of their loud student section. Evan Jester brought them to a boil, scoring the opening points on a vicious two-handed jam, then adding another pair and swatting away a Tiger shot.
Both teams would get hit with technical fouls during the frame as Sandy Creek started to pull away. Xavier Brewer hit on a jumper, and Jester added two on another near-dunk. Noah Gurley posted back-to-back blocks as the Tigers tried to keep close, but a KJ Wilkins three-pointer made it a 17-3 game and a 19-6 lead after the first quarter.
Phillip Young hit from long range early, then swiped a pass and laid it in in for two as the Tigers tried to claw back. Jaylen Holloway brought the Tiger faithful to their feet with a stunning two-hand putback dunk to help get within two before the Patriots went on a run. Chris Porter sank a three, and Jester and Brewer added buckets as they pulled ahead 28-18.
Holloway ignited Fayette late, blocking a dunk attempt and adding a coast-to-coast layup to get the game back within single digits.
“Huge plays. That’s what Jaylen brings to the table,” praised Flynn. “He’s very athletic. He’s gonna finish. He’s gonna defend. He’s gonna get to the basket. He’s gonna draw fouls.”
Sophomores Jordan Brown and Josh Dupree picked up the slack at the end of the half. Brown converted a three-point play, and Dupree added a putback to slice it down to a 32-28 Sandy Creek lead at halftime.
“Two of my captains, Austin (Nesmith) and Noah (Gurley), are sitting on the bench in foul trouble, and I have 10th graders in, guys that haven’t been in the program,” noted Flynn. “They tell you we’ve got a chance, if we keep working, to be pretty good.”
Fayette built on their newfound momentum, racking up a 12-2 run to start the second half and grab the lead with flair. Gurley was the first to explode, throwing down a thunderous one-handed dunk, then Young took his turn with a coast-to-coast jam. Nesmith hit a three to put the Tigers in the lead at 35-34, and Dupree added his own coast-to-coast bucket. Nesmith had a little more in him, crossing up his defender and driving to the hoop for two a five-point lead.
Nesmith was one of the players forced to sit early, as he had three fouls in the first half. The Tigers were a whole different team when their starting point guard hit the court in the second half.
“He’s the show. He’s the one that gets us going,” said Flynn. “My other guys came in and held it down and even cut into their lead, so once Austin got in, I felt great.”
Sandy Creek stopped the bleeding with baskets from Jester and Brewer, as the game tightened up. A Wilkins jumper and two from Brewer knotted the game back up at 51-51, but a Young putback gave the Tigers a 53-51 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
“That’s our motto at Fayette County. We scrap and claw,” said Flynn. “We pressed, and they pressed. I felt like we wore them down (in the second half). That’s when I felt like we started pulling away and making plays.”
The Patriots looked like they had the momentum early in the fourth, Brewer draining a three with a hand in his face to steal the lead away, but the defense of Dupree would give the Tigers a huge boost. On two consecutive trips down the court, Sandy Creek went up for what looked like an uncontested layup, but Dupree came flying out of nowhere to smack the ball off the glass.
“Don’t ever give up. That’s the key,” Flynn said of Dupree’s hustle. “We got on him one time after he kinda stopped on a play. We said we don’t ever give up.”
Fayette would feed off the energy created by Dupree’s blocks, reeling off a 7-0 run to take a lead they would never give back. The Tigers’ lead grew as large as eight points, but the Patriots never quit. Sandy Creek pulled back within five points with under two minutes to play, but the Tigers hit their free throws down the stretch to seal up the 75-69 win.
All night long, the game had the feel of a deep playoff game, in part because of a tremendous crowd on both sides. Fayette relished the chance to play on such a fun stage.
“I love this atmosphere. We were down in their house with a hostile crowd, but we kept working,” said Flynn, whose team shook off all the jeers from the home fans. “We didn’t blink. We stayed the course.”
Phillip Young finished the night as Fayette’s leading scorer with 19 points, followed by Austin Nesmith with 16, Jaylen Holloway with 13, and Noah Gurley with 12. Gurley and Young each notched 6 rebounds, Young adding five steals. Holloway posted 7 assists.
Evan Jester led the Patriots with 26 points, followed by KJ Wilkins with 12, Xavier Brewer with 11, and TJ Bickerstaff with 10. Jester also added 10 rebounds and 4 steals.
The girls game provided plenty of its own excitement earlier in the night, the Lady Patriots announcing they will be a force to be reckoned with this year with a 55-43 win.
“This is a rivalry game, and the girls really wanted to come out and win. It was big for them,” said Sandy Creek’s new head coach Janie Hodges. “Fayette gave us everything they had. They kept throwing punches. They’re a well-coached team. We were just able to execute a little better tonight, and the ball fell our way.”
The Patriots scuffled early, only putting up nine points in the first quarter. They bounced back with 17 points in the second quarter to take the lead, and they never looked back.
“I would’ve liked for it to be a little bit cleaner, a little bit more intense, but I’m happy we got a win,” said Hodges. “Now we’ve just got to regroup and continue to play hard.”
Fayette County held a narrow 11-9 lead after one quarter, but were able to build on their advantage early in the second thanks to a Jordan Starks floater. Maegan Barkley stretched the lead to five points when she missed a shot but got her own rebound and put up two.
Sandy Creek erased the gap on a Qaylia Stanton three-pointer and a Paris Thompson bucket, then grabbed an 18-16 lead. The Tigers stepped back in front on a Rikkelle Miller trey, but Kasey Toles swiped it for the Patriots on her own long bomb. A pair of free throws from Ozemeyi Egure got her Tigers close, but the Patriots scored the last five points of the half to take a 26-21 lead into the half.
Fayette’s Naomi Franco, a freshman center, tried to spark her team out of the gate with a block in the post, but the Patriots were unfazed. Toles hit from deep to extend the gap to eight points. Trinity Brown converted a three-point play, and Darryl Langford drove and dished to Jazlyne Hanson for a pair, but the Tigers could not climb any closer than within five points.
A Morghan Currie steal led to a Stanton basket, and another Toles trey keyed a run to stretch the lead to double digits. Barkley cut it down to 40-32 on the last points of the third quarter, faking out her defender and getting to the rim for two.
Sandy Creek kept pushing early in the fourth, Amara Owoh notching two on a putback and Toles feeding freshman Daija Powell in the post. With a comfortable lead and time running out for the Tigers, the Patriots started milking the clock with four minutes left. They would ice the game at the free throw line late in the 55-43 victory.
Kasey Toles led the Patriots in points with 15, followed by Qaylia Stanton with 14, and Daija Powell with 11. Toles finished the night three of six on three-pointers and also added eight rebounds, four assists, and three steals. Stanton posted six rebounds and five steals.
The two schools will meet again in the regular season finale at Fayette County Feb. 4.
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