The great teams find a way to get it done when the game is on the line, and Sandy Creek showed their mettle, kicking it into another gear to run away with a 64-44 win over the Burke County Bears Wednesday night.
Struggling to get their shots to fall, the Patriots slumped to just 24 first-half points and trailed by three points. They came out of the break refreshed and refocused, outscoring the Bears 40-17 to punch their ticket to the Final Four for the second straight season.
“It feels great. The guys worked really hard,” said Sandy Creek coach Jon-Michael Nickerson. “I’m happy for them getting to go for the second straight season. Hopefully it’ll have a different outcome this time.”
TJ Bickerstaff started the night with a 3-pointer, and Chris Porter added a deep jumper as Sandy Creek opened up a 12-6 lead. Burke Co. responded with a pair of long bombs from Zayveon Williams to tie the game at the end of the first quarter.
The second quarter continued the swings in momentum with Xavier Brewer sinking a 3-pointer and Burke ripping off four straight points to take their first lead. Jarred Godfrey did the heavy lifting in the frame, scoring seven of the Patriots’ 12 points, including a drive up the baseline for a two-handed dunk. A three-point play from Godfrey staked his team to six-point lead, only to see the Bears close out the last four and a half minutes of the half on a 9-0 run to take a 27-24 halftime lead.
The Patriots looked like a whole new team out of the break.
“We had to communicate. We had to get tougher,” said Nickerson. “We left a lot of rebounds on the board, and we still didn’t play as tough as I wanted, but I think the talent and size overwhelmed them a little bit.”
They capped off their own 9-0 run with a Brewer bomb. Brewer played one of his most complete games of a standout senior campaign. He exploded for 15 of his 18 points in the second half on sharp shooting from deep. He also hit the glass hard with 7 rebounds.
“We told the guys getting open shots in the first half you’ve got to grow up and hit big shots in big moments, and he did that in the second half,” said Nickerson. “His defense picked up, and he was an unbelievable rim protector for us. He really dominated the paint.”
A Bickerstaff 3-pointer staked Sandy Creek to a seven-point lead, but Burke clawed back within 37-35 heading into the final frame.
Keyed by Kam Miller at the point, the defense locked in as they outscored the Bears 27-9 down the stretch. While Zayveon Williams was sharp for the Bears at the outset with 10 first-half points, they shut him down with just four points in the second half. Miller’s all-out effort harassed Burke into rushed passes and turnovers.
“It seems like those guys feel good against him for the first half, then in the second half it gets so mentally exhausting,” said Nickerson. “He’s like a daggone gnat that won’t go away and you can’t swat, he’s there all the time. I’m sad because it’s my last chance to coach him.”
Brewer kept up the good work, opening the fourth with a trey and following it with a pair of blocks on the defensive end. Burke tried to slow the momentum with a full-court press, but Miller managed to slip through a trio of defenders and find Brewer for an easy lay-in. Brewer supplied the dagger as he sank his fourth 3-pointer of the night to push the lead to double-digits with under five minutes to play.
It was all defense down the stretch as the Patriots three times stole the ball and turned it into an easy bucket as they cruised to a 64-44 victory.
Godfrey led the way for the Patriots with 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists, followed by Brewer with 18 points and 7 rebounds. Bickerstaff posted a double-double with 13 points and 16 rebounds.
Awaiting the Patriots in the Final Four will be a juggernaut in the Upson-Lee Knights. Sporting a 28-0 record, the Knights are defending state champions and winners of 61 straight games overall.
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