Sandy Creek rolled into Friday’s primetime matchup against Whitewater looking for a fresh start. After suffering a non-region loss to rival Fayette County earlier in the week, the Patriots needed to win to build confidence early in the season.

Whitewater provided a unique challenge as a young and upstart program. Under new head coach Matt Martin, the Wildcats hung tough with the Patriots for 32 minutes. However, Sandy Creek prevailed 63-58 en route to their first victory of the season.

Senior duo TJ Bickerstaff and RJ Howard led the charge for the Patriots. Bickerstaff collected 20 points, 10 rebounds, 6 steals and 2 blocks. Howard scored 15 points and had 3 steals. He iced the game, with 30 seconds left, as his driving layup helped Sandy Creek escape with a road win.

“This is a very new team with not a lot of experience,” Patriots head coach Jon-Michael Nickerson said. “We have a world of talent and potential, but the potential has to turn into production. That is what we are battling. We did grow tonight as we worked on making the extra pass. You saw that late when we got a lot of assists for layups.”

Sandy Creek found an early rhythm in the first quarter. They jumped out to a 22-9 lead behind 7 quick points from Bickerstaff. The talented forward controlled the tempo and orchestrated an inside-out attack that rotated the ball around to shooters. As a result, the Patriots went on a 14-0 run to quiet the home Wildcat crowd.

T.J. Bickerstaff dives into the paint for a layup. He had 20 points in the game. (Staff Photo: Chris Dunn)

“I love TJ and I got to enjoy every game with him because we don’t have a lot left,” Nickerson said. “He is so dynamic and you live with his mistakes. He is so unselfish and he is fun to watch.”

Faced with an early deficit, Whitewater switched up their defensive alignment in the second quarter. Martin went to a 1-3-1 defense and forced the Patriots to commit turnovers.

The Wildcats took advantage with 5 second-quarter points from senior C.J. Jackson. He hit a corner 3-pointer that sparked the Whitewater comeback.

Whitewater outscored the Patriots 14-4 to climb back into the game. At halftime, Sandy Creek led 26-23 as both teams went to the locker rooms.

“We just to keep playing hard and stay rebounding,” Wildcats senior guard Kwon Bush said. “They were killing us on the glass early on and we got back in there. We started to rebound and score. We also pressed and made them turn it over.”

After halftime, Bush started to come alive from the outside. He hit three 3-pointers in the third quarter to pace the offense. He also dished a couple assists to junior forward Omar Ndengey.

Omar Ndengey throws down a massive dunk against Sandy Creek. (Staff Photo: Chris Dunn).

Ndengey threw down some vicious dunks that got the crowd back involved. His energy helped Whitewater cut the lead to 43-40 midway through the third frame. However, the Patriots bench maintained the lead. Junior guard Matt Williams chipped in with clutch baskets and finished with 5 points. Fellow junior Keith Williams III added 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists as well.

“I think those dudes are starters talent-wise and it wasn’t out of nowhere,” Nickerson said. “It’s what I expect every game.”

Whitewater had one last run in the fourth quarter. Bush hit  another crucial 3-pointer to cut the lead down to 60-56 late. The Wildcats were able to force an ensuing turnover as Ndengey altered Bickerstaff’s shot at the rim. On the next possession, sophomore Javon Jenkins hit two free throws to pull within two points.

The Wildcats wouldn’t draw closer as Bickerstaff picked off junior Zach Leischner under the rim. He found RJ Howard on a layup to ice the game. Whitewater’s valiant effort came up short as they lost their first game.

“The game was high-flying and exciting,” Martin said. “I got to give Coach Nickerson credit as they made the plays down the stretch and put a full 32 minutes together. Unfortunately, we came a couple short. I am proud of the effort and we can build on this.”

Despite the loss, Whitewater proved that they can play with anyone. They narrowly lost to a Final Four team and one that was a top team in the state. Martin believes his team is right there and is looking forward to the getting better as the season progresses.

“Our guys played so hard and I am so proud of them,” Martin said. “If we can continue playing like this, we are going to be where we need to be at the end of the year.”

Both Whitewater and Sandy Creek were in action this weekend. The Patriots defeated Lithonia  65-61 in the On The Radar Showcase. Bickerstaff had 27 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists. Sophomore Jabari Smith had 12 points and 9 rebounds. Whitewater fell to East Coweta 75-58 on Saturday night.


Lady Patriots escape with 71-66 win over Whitewater 

Sandy Creek senior forward Daija Powell took her mother’s words to heart. After struggling against Fayette, Powell was left searching for answers. So, she sat down with her mom and they worked on strategies to perform better on the court.

Both concluded that Powell needed to relax and not overthink situations in the game. Against Whitewater, she took heed to the message.

Powell exploded with 37 points to propel the Lady Patriots to a 71-66 victory. She dominated the Lady Wildcats interior and bested top prospect Jada Claude to help Sandy Creek win their second game of the season.

“It made me push myself,” Powell said. “When I play against players like that, they make me put the ball on the floor and go to the rim.”

Daija Powell dominated in the post against Whitewater. She had 37 points on the night. (Staff Photo: Chris Dunn)

Powell unleashed an array of post moves against Whitewater. She peppered the Wildcats with mid-range jump shots and dribble drives. The Patriots needed every point to overcome a charging Wildcats offense.

Claude led the Wildcats with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Her activity also opened scoring opportunities for her teammates to thrive. Senior guard Courtney Smith took advantage with 28 points on 6-of-16 shooting. Smith also dropped in 8 second-quarter points as Whitewater trailed 28-25 heading into halftime.

However, Sandy Creek took control early in the third quarter. After Smith gave Whitewater a 31-30 lead, the Patriots went on a 13-0 run to grab a 43-31 advantage. Powell scored 18 points in the frame as teammates Paris Thompson, Nina Lum, and Jania Hodges battled foul trouble.

“I think when Paris (Thompson) and Nina (Lum) went out, I had to step up offensively and defensively,” Powell said.

Powell forced Whitewater to re-design their defensive scheme. The Wildcats decided to hedge and double Powell in the post. As a result, they were able to stay in striking distance of Sandy Creek.

In the fourth quarter, Claude hit a big 3-pointer with 3:00 minutes remaining to draw Whitewater back within 10 points. Later, senior forward Erin Ledbetter scored on a layup to close the deficit within two possessions.

Courtney Smith led the way for Whitewater. She had 28 points in a losing effort. (Staff Photo: Chris Dunn)

This forced Sandy Creek head coach Janie Hodges to call a timeout. Her message was to get the ball into Powell’s hands. On the ensuing possession, Powell got the ball and found Jania Hodges for back-to-back baskets. The four-point swing iced the game as Sandy Creek escaped with a victory.

“The communication was working as we were looking for each other and passing the ball,” Powell said. “We said before the game that we have to work together and we did that today.”

Coach Hodges was proud of Powell’s effort. She hopes to see a more aggressive mentality as the season progresses. She believes it will be great for the team overall.

“I think she rose to the challenge as she knew that Jada (Claude) could put up big numbers,” Janie Hodges said. “She also had to put up big numbers tonight. Going forward, she needs to have that killer instinct every day.”

Despite the loss, the Claude was happy to see the resolve of her teammates. They battled hard and stay in contention throughout. She said the goal is to get better by locking in more on the defensive end.

“I think we booked out a little bit on defense,” Claude said. “I think that was the main thing. Offensively we were alright, but defensively we didn’t rebound when we needed it.”

Both teams will be back in action during the Thanksgiving break. Sandy Creek will play in the HoopsGiving Classic. On Saturday, Whitewater defeated East Coweta 73-70 to improve to 2-1 overall.

Courtney Smith led the way with 33 points and 16 rebounds and 6 steals. She was also 24 for 30 from the free-throw line. Jada Claude was dominant with 21 points and 20 rebounds.

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