Wilson Hall boys head basketball coach Eddie Talley had the rare opportunity to celebrate two coaching wins on Friday at Nash Student Center.
The first was as part of a ceremony at halftime of the boys SCISA III-3A contest against Laurence Manning Academy honoring his 2000 state championship team. The second came as his young team fed off a charged atmosphere that featured dueling student sections to earn a 46-42 upset win over its rivals from Clarendon County.
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"That was a special occasion," Talley said of the state championship team's recognition. "It's hard to believe it's been 20 years, but that was a special group right there and we had the majority of them able to make it back tonight. What they did that year was remarkable and being able to remember them tonight was just very special."
Though it would seem the perfect plan to draw a big crowd for this ceremony would be to schedule it on a night when LMA was coming to town, Talley said that was not the original plan.
"No no no, not at all," he said. "We had only two games on Friday in January to play, so it just turned out that way. If I had my choice we'd probably pick somebody else to bring them back to play. (The atmosphere) was great. The guys were talking before the game that it's not many times that they get to experience this, because it was a great crowd. Both teams had a lot of people here tonight. We have good support, but tonight was just special and the guys responded to it. I wish every game could be like this with the crowd, but tonight was just a great night. I'm just proud of the guys because this is the first time that we've seen a crowd like this, and I thought we played pretty well, considering."
Evan Hoffman and Miller Jones proved to be the difference makers in what would have to be termed an improbable win for the Barons, who improved to 3-9 on the season and 1-2 in region play. Hoffman closed with 10 points, including three second-quarter 3-point baskets that pushed his team out to a 7-point lead, its largest of the night, before LMA rallied to tie the score 24-24at the break. Jones, who led Wilson Hall with 17 points, scored 11 in a second half that saw the Barons rally from five down early in the third quarter to finally pull away in the last minute of what was a nip-and-tuck half.
"It (Hoffman's 3s) got us a (17-10) lead, and we squandered it a little bit, but he can shoot," Talley said. "Sometimes maybe we need to do a better job of trying to get him the ball, but those were some big shots. I just thought Miller stepped up and played great in the second half. Everybody was getting a little bit winded, but he made some big plays and hit a couple of big shots. I'm just happy for the kids because we've battled all year and things haven't gone our way very much. I'm just so happy for them tonight."
LMA played without two of its top players in Umar Lawson and Chase Lee, but Swampcats head coach Will Epps refused to use that as an excuse.
"They outplayed us tonight," said Epps, whose team dropped to 15-6 overall and 2-2 in region play. "That's about all you can say about it. Obviously it was a really big win for them and they're excited, and we've got to get to work. We've got a big week coming up and we've got to work to try to get better. Their point guard, Miller Jones, was exceptional tonight, and that was the difference in the game. He handled the pressure, he got to his spots, he got the ball to his teammates and he scored points."
DeRon Medley Jr. set the pace for LMA with 20 points while Brandon King closed with 13.
"DeRon stepped up and scored the ball well for us," Epps said. "We missed a ton of shots that were very makeable, and if you want to win tight games you've got to make shots. He scored the ball well, Brandon scored a few points but other than that we struggled to find any scoring."
The girls game was also hotly contested, with LMA grabbing a 1-point lead about midway through the final quarter only to see Wilson Hall go on an 11-2 run to close the game to take a 50-42 win.
LMA's Breanna Boykin hit two free throws with 4:59 to go to put her team up 40-39, marking the fifth lead change of the half. Then the Lady Barons forced turnovers on the next three LMA possessions that resulted in seven points in just 41 seconds, culminating with a 3-point play from Maddie Elmore that put Wilson Hall up 46-40.
"We picked up the defense when they got the lead at that particular point in time, and Haley Roone McCaffrey in particular was really looking for an opportunity to take the ball to the basket," said Wilson Hall girls head coach Glen Rector, whose team advanced to 10-3 and 3-0. "She was able to get a couple of baskets and then we were able to feed off of her momentum, and the momentum of the game probably changed at that point."
"That was a real turning point in the game," said LMA head coach Betsy Reynolds, whose team dropped to 8-7 and 2-2. "We made some mistakes and I told the girls after the game, ‘I hate to say great effort when you lose, but it was a great effort.’ It wasn't a perfect game; we had a lot of mistakes that we shouldn't have made, and when you play a team like Wilson Hall they're going to usually turn those mistakes into layups or straight-up fouling. It was a combination of all of that."
McCaffrey, who led the Lady Barons with 16 points, scored Wilson Hall's first six points of the final quarter. A low-post bucket put the Lady Barons up 39-35, but a missed 3-point play opportunity and two more misses at the line left the door open for LMA to take its final lead with Katherine Burns knocking down her second trey of the night in advance of Boykin's free throws.
After a steal and layup by Boykin cut the lead back to four, Andi Grae Wingate drained two clutch free throws after an LMA timeout to push the lead back to six, 48-42, with 1:07 to go. A Gracyn Coker low-post bucket with 41 seconds left would close the scoring.
"This is Andi Grae's first year on varsity and she's really done an incredible job for us, especially on the inside," Rector said of Wingate, who finished with nine points. "She right now is our second leading scorer, our leading rebounder, and she was very calm and composed when she was on that free throw line. She did a really good job of following through and staying within her form and was able to hit two free throws in a very important spot."
Burns did all that she could to keep her team in the game, scoring exactly half of her team's points in closing with 21. She accounted for 12 of LMA's 17 first-half points as Wilson Hall carried a 20-17 lead into the break and hit on 9 of 14 free throws, including 6-for-6 in the third quarter.
"Katherine Burns has made an incredible improvement since last year," Rector said. "You can tell (from) her ball handling. She has much more confidence in her ball handling, she is more confident in her shooting, and you see confidence more than anywhere else on the free throw line. She was incredible on the free throw line for them tonight."
"Katherine is a leader in so many ways," Reynolds said. "She's a very mature player, she has a lot of experience, just a great girl. ... She just played her heart out. She will just do anything that you ask her to do, and I just love to see kids like that shine, and to show what they're made of."
Reynolds, a Wilson Hall graduate and a member of the school's first girls basketball state championship squad in 1976, was making her first appearance at NSC as an opposing varsity head coach. Reynolds was on the coaching staff at Wilson Hall from 1980-85, a stretch that saw the Lady Barons make it to the state championship game in 1984 before falling to Hammond.
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