by Rob Grubbs
It’s been said that it’s always the darkest right before dawn. For the Sandy Creek Lady Patriots, it was extremely dark in the closing minutes of their Region 5-AAAA Championship game against Troup County on Saturday night. Four of their starters were either fouled out or in severe foul trouble, and a uniform error earned them a technical foul, but they redefined their season in the final minutes as Nina Lum played the role of hero and they scrapped their way back to a dramatic 50-47 win.
The Lady Patriots (23-4) had beaten Troup twice during the regular season, but on this night, they had trouble establishing a lead on the Lady Tigers (17-8). They looked inside early to Dajia Powell and Arielle Belinga, and when they combined for a nice pass and score under the basket right at the end of the first quarter, the Patriots had a six-point lead.
Troup rallied back, and in the process, the Patriots began to pick up fouls to their core group at an alarming rate. By the middle of the third quarter, four of their starters and their top sub all had three fouls. In the fourth, they started fouling out, and Sandy Creek, who competes with a small rotation of players, slowly watched three starters relegated to the bench.
The toughest moment came when Coach Janie Hodges had to replace one of her starters and the replacing player’s uniform number did not match the scorekeeper’s book, which earned them a technical foul and a six-point deficit at 44-38 with just over three minutes remaining.
The crowd went quiet for moment, almost in disbelief, until some yelled out, “There is a lot of time left, let’s go.”
Lum took that to heart and began to engineer the comeback. It started from the free throw line and over the final minutes of the game, Lum and Belinga outscored the Tigers 12-3.
At the end of the game, the other three players on the floor with them were Robin Jeffress, India Holmes, and Kristina Pope.
“We had a will to win tonight,” said Hodges. “Leaders show up in the times we need them. Our floor generals came through for us tonight.”
First and foremost of those leaders was Lum.
“I was trying to control the tempo and control the game,” said Lum. “On the free throw line, I just blocked everything out and did my job.”
It takes a remarkable group of ladies to pull something like that off on the big stage of the region tournament, especially when everything wasn’t going their way.
Lum lead the team with 17 points, Belinga had 13, and Powell contributed 10.
The Sandy Creek boys (24-3) looked to defend their region crown against the Cartersville Purple Hurricanes, and, although their game didn’t have the same drama as the girls’ contest, it was close before they broke it open in the third quarter for a 78-64 victory.
Patriot Coach Jon-Michael Nickerson is constantly looking for defensive perfection, and his team came close to that in the second half.
TJ Bickerstaff lead all scorers with 28 points, Jabari Smith had 18, and Julian Alexander, who just picked up a scholarship offer from Clark-Atlanta, added 11. DeShon Proctor did heavy lifting with 14 points and 14 rebounds.
“We definitely picked up the intensity in the second half and changed the momentum with that pressure,” said Nickerson. “We are in a good place. We are relatively healthy, and they have a hungry mindset to keep improving. That is what you want.”
The thought of the Patriots improving can be a scary thought for the rest of Class AAAA.
Both the girls’ and boys’ teams will be back in action in the first round of the state playoffs on Saturday, as both teams will play North Oconee, the same team that ended the Lady Patriots’ season last year. Meanwhile, Coach Nickerson and the boys will be looking for their second consecutive 25-win season as they prepare for a deep run in the playoffs.
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