by Rob Grubbs
Typically when you think of Augusta, Georgia in the spring, it’s because of the Masters Golf Tournament and who will win the green jacket this year. For the Sandy Creek basketball program, Augusta meant the next round of the state playoffs, the Final Four, with the opportunity to play for their first ever state basketball championship. Up to this point, the boys and girls teams played the first three rounds at in their friendly confines at home but the opponents they would face at Augusta University’s Christenberry Field House on Saturday would be the most formidable to date. Both games followed a similar pattern, as Sandy Creek would fall behind quickly to start the game, fight back to even things up just past the midway point only to see their season slip away late. When the sting from the final outcome subsides, it will certainly be a magical season for everyone to remember and look back on.
In the first game, Coach Janie Hodges’s Lady Patriots would face the Columbus Lady Blue Devils (23-5) with their twin towers inside who would be playing basketball in the SEC this time next year, Tatyana Wyatt with Kentucky and Ariyah Copeland with Alabama. Facing this combination would be an incredible challenge, and to complicate matters Sandy Creek would be without their top inside player, Daija Powell, who was out with an injury from the prior game. In Powell’s place, Hodges would start senior Logan Bolton, who would score the first Sandy Creek points of the game, and go with a three guard lineup lead by seniors Shan’quaylia Stanton and Kasey Toles.
The size of the Columbus defense frustrated the Patriots early as Copeland had three blocked shots in the first four minutes, as the Blue Devils ran out to a quick 14-4 lead. After a Sandy Creek timeout, it was if the Patriots summoned up something they had held in reserve for just this moment, as they begin to slowly and confidently work their way back into the game. When play resumed, Toles hit her first basket of the game, a 3-pointer, that seemed to steady the Lady Patriots confidence. They went back to playing their style of basketball, and, with Morghan Currie playing solid underneath against Wyatt and Copeland, the Patriots outscored Columbus 21-14 over the next ten minutes to cut the halftime deficit to three at 28-25.
They continued this play after the break, tying the game at 29-29. When Toles hit her fifth three of the game, the Patriots were holding a 36-32 lead with three minutes remaining in the third. With seemingly all odds against them, the Patriots had pulled themselves back into the position of finishing this one out. However, the Blue Devils, who had been playing a rotation of nine players all evening would go on a quick burst and Wyatt, who finished with 26 points, soon took over the game. In the end, she was just too much as Columbus would advance onward with a 62-50 win.
For the Lady Patriots, Toles scored 20 points, Currie had 10 to go with her 6 blocks, and Stanton had 9. Coach Hodges did not want to make excuses, but added, “We would certainly love to have the opportunity to play them again with Daija in the lineup.”
While the season ended on a sad note, there is certainly much room for optimism for next year with the returning players to build around.
The boys game started the same way as they faced off against the St. Pius Golden Lions (23-7). The much shorter Golden Lions played a game of precision passing, constant motion, and full court pressure defense to irritate the Patriots early, jumping out to what seemed to be an insurmountable 24-6 lead with two minutes still remaining in the first quarter. It was as if they had caught lightning in a bottle, every shot went in and every ball bounced their way. St. Pius had brought a loud, boisterous student section that was right on top of the Patriots home basket, and, for the first time in the playoffs, they were playing from behind in a hostile environment.
This was not an opportunity the Patriots would shy away from as they began the long process of fighting back. While they had the disadvantage of being behind, they had the advantage of having plenty of time left to slowly work their way back. With team captain Evan Jester on the bench in early foul trouble, Xavier Brewer hit a couple of key baskets and added a blocked shot as the 18-point early deficit began to slowly melt away and when Chris Porter hit a deep 3-pointer, the Patriots were only down seven. The momentum and the energy was clearly on the Patriots’ side, and, with seven minutes left in the game, it was tied at 52-52 after a jumper from KJ Wilkins as the Patriots had outscored the Golden Lions 46-28 over the second and third quarters.
With the game tied up, St. Pius went on a quick run that would eventually put the game away. It was as if the Patriots had expended all of their energy to overcome the early deficit, and, when they tied things up, they had used up most of the fuel n their tank and didn’t have much left in reserve to fight off the last St. Pius run. In the end, St. Pius would close things out with near perfection at the free throw line, winning 87-68. The final score sheet would show that St. Pius scored 32 points from the free throw line, while the Patriots would only get 12.
Wilkins led the Patriots with 18 points, and Jester chipped in 14 to lead Sandy Creek in scoring. As the clock expired on their season, sadness and exhaustion set in, but not regret, as they knew they had left everything they had on the floor.
While there will be no state championship opportunities this week, there will be a lifetime of memories and stories about how these two Sandy Creek teams started a playoff run and finished up as both making it to the Final Four in the same season, an accomplishment that will be tough to top.