JACKSONVILLE – The Sand Rock Wildcats were on the cusp of clinching their first state basketball tournament trip to Birmingham in a decade on Thursday against top-ranked Midfield, but the Patriots’ athleticism won out in the end.
After holding as much as an 11-point lead with 5:40 remaining in the third quarter, top-ranked Midfield managed to survive a late surge from the fourth-ranked Wildcats to earn a 66-61 victory.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these guys,” Sand Rock coach John Blackwell said. “I thought we played hard. I thought we did a lot of things right. We were definitely playing a very good, very athletic Midfield team. I thought it took a very good team to beat us, and Midfield had to play extremely hard to beat us.”
Even with his team up 44-33 in the early minutes of the third quarter, Patriot head coach Courtney Jones told his team the Wildcats (24-6) weren’t going to back down.
“Basketball is a game of runs and I just kept telling the guys they’re going to make a run,” Jones said. “We’ve got to make another run. Just keep your head and stay disciplined, stay poised. We’re just going to make shots, and let’s play defense without fouling. I just thank God they listened and we got the job done.”
Down 44-33 after Midfield’s Anthony Johnson connected on basket with 5:40 to go in the third, Sand Rock closed out the quarter on a 13-4 run, cutting its deficit to 48-46.
The Wildcats tied the game at 58 on a floater by Jacob St. Clair with 2:25 remaining in the game.
“We run a different offense for about three quarters,” Blackwell said. “We’d run two for about three quarters of the game, but in the third quarter, we went to our No. 3 offense. It was a good change. I think they had gotten kind of used to what we were running. That change got Cade (Ballenger) a good look. It got Garyn (Sharpe) a couple of looks. It got Jacob a couple of looks. We were able to hit a three and got a couple of floaters to go there. We got some pull-up jumpers. That was a good change for us.
“Our post play was in foul trouble. Early on in the game, I thought we had some advantages in the post. We did go to it some, but once again, you’re playing a very athletic team. I thought that change of offense was a good move for us in the fourth quarter. I thought it gave us some good looks.”
But after St. Clair’s floater tied the game at 58, the Patriots buckled down on defense. They didn’t allow another basket until a St. Clair trey at the buzzer.
In the meantime on offense, Midfield made 8-of-10 free throws in the game’s final two minutes.
“Sand Rock did a great job sitting back in the zone,” Jones said. “To kind of spread of them out, I said let’s try to get to the cup, get them in foul situations. We were in the double bonus toward the end, so instead of us continuing to allow the three-ball, let’s get to the cup. Let’s force them to play defense. I think that’s what we did. We just wanted to get the game going our way.”
Demariee Jones led the Patriots (24-6) with a game-high 27 points, including the 1,000th of his career. He also had 13 rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
Malek Kendricks came away with 17 points, including five 3-pointers. Anthony Johnson finished with 15 points.
St. Clair connected on four treys and had 22 points to top Sand Rock’s scorers. Sharpe rang for 17. Ballenger finished with 14 points and four assists.
“You’ve got to give credit to them. They hit shots they’ve not been hitting,” Blackwell said. “I think our defense pushed them to those spots, but they made them. I think if we had ever took the lead, there are some things I think we could have done.”
“If we don’t dig ourselves in that hole, I think it’s a completely different game,” Ballenger said. “If we don’t give up the second-chance points that we did, it’s a completely different game. We couldn’t do the little stuff.
“We’d have definitely been able to pick and choose our shots a little better, get a better shot selection. I know there at the end we were just throwing up stuff out of desperation, but if we’re ahead by one or two with two minutes left, we could slow it down a little bit more. They get two or three possessions maximum the rest of the game.”
Although disappointed their season ended short of the state tournament, Blackwell praised his seniors for what they’ve accomplished throughout their careers.
“These guys have won back-to-back county championships, back-to-back area championships, back-to-back sub-region games, back-to-back trips to the regional tournament,” he said. “Last year, I think it had been 19 years since Sand Rock boys basketball had won an area and a county the same year. These guys have done some tremendous things in boys basketball at Sand Rock, things that have not been done in nearly two decades.”
Two of Sand Rock’s seniors are Ballenger and Sharpe.
“We made it to the Sweet 16 last year and the Elite 8 this year. Hopefully it’s the Final Four next year for them,” Ballenger said. “We’re not going to be here, but hopefully they can push themselves enough to where they can go to the Final Four.”
“We wanted to go to state, but the progression is good,” Sharpe added. “We got a step further this year. We wanted to go to the Final Four and win state this year. I think we had a pretty good chance at doing that.”