Normally, a two-point first quarter would mean a quick and painless death for a basketball team. But this was anything but a normal night at The Castle in Boonetown.
Trailing rival Andrew Jackson, 9-2, after the first eight minutes of the game, host North Central trimmed the deficit to 24-20 with just more than six minutes left to play. But the Volunteers used a game-closing 16-2 run to come away with a 40-22 victory in a Friday Region 4-AA boys’ basketball contest.
The loss dropped the Knights to 0-2 in conference play and 1-9 overall.
Three nights after having scored 83 points in a nine-point win over 4A Lugoff-Elgin, AJ struggled to get into an offensive rhythm against NC’s 2-3 zone. By the same token, the Knights battled shooting woes through the evening, knocking down just seven field goals against AJ’s 1-2-2 set.
The Knights faced a taller AJ squad which was without 6-foot-5 freshman Donatrius James for the entire third quarter and the opening three minutes of the fourth after having come down hard on his right knee in the final 18 seconds of the opening half. Without James to clog the middle, NC head coach Cary Phillips urged his team to take the ball to the basket. Instead, the Knights were content on continuing to try their luck from beyond the three-point arc.
"I was hoping that we would be more aggressive in going to the basket," Phillips said of the offensive plan of attack with James being tended to on the bench. "But our guys settled for that outside shot. That’s what I was yelling from the sidelines, ‘Attack that gap.’ We were real complacent in standing around and passing the ball outside."
James went down after being fouled by Will Jenkins on a drive to the basket with 17.7 seconds left in the first half. With James being helped from the floor, Kadarius Kirkland came off the bench and sank a pair of free throws which gave the visitors a 17-6 lead heading into halftime.
At first, the Knights heeded Phillips’ plea as sophomore forward Jeremiah Jenkins opened the second half with a pair of short jumpers. Demarious Reel added a 15-footer before Will Jenkins bottomed out two fouls shots to cap an 8-0 run in the first five minutes of the third quarter as NC drew to within 17-14.
With James sidelined, the Vols needed Corey Walters to pick up the scoring slack after a two-point first half. The 6-foot-2 junior guard did just that in hitting a 15-foot jumper and then going inside for a scoop layin to put the lead at 21-14. NC was down, 21-17, after Zach Jones closed the third quarter scoring by sticking a 3-point jumper from the left elbow.
The deficit remained at four points after Will Jenkins sent home a 3-ball, making it 24-20 with 6:12 to play in the contest. But AJ point guard Quinton Bracey nailed consecutive treys while Walters added a third to extend the lead to 33-22 with 3:26 left as the guests closed with a 13-0 spree over the final five-plus minutes.
Following a quiet first 22 minutes, Walters scored nine of his 11 points in the final 10 minutes of the contest.
"Our goal was to take away (Walters) and we did a good job of that until the fourth quarter," Phillips said. "We had to move guys into spots where they were not comfortable playing in and he got some good looks.
"Until late in the fourth quarter, it was a game that we could win. We just didn’t do a good job offensively. Defensively, I was pleased with our performance."
Phillips was none-too-thrilled with his team’s shot selection in a two-point first quarter in which AJ scored the final seven points to carry a 9-2 advantage into the second stanza. "We took a ton of threes in the first quarter instead of going to the basket. That’s just inexperience," Phillips said
NC used a Jay Parks 3-point jumper to close the gap to 9-5 before AJ used an 8-1 run to lead, 17-6, at the break.
In spite of scoring just six points in the first 16 minutes, Phillips said the pace of play was where the Knights needed it to be rather than allowing the Volunteers to get into their transition game.
"We have to keep it a half-court game. That’s beneficial for us because, as you can see, sometimes we’re offensively-challenged," said the first-year NC boss. "We don’t exactly put the ball in the basket like some teams so, a low-scoring game in the 40s and 50s are games that we feel we can win."
Will Jenkins led the hosts with seven points while Parks added five. Phillips said if his team can play as well on the offensive end of the floor as they are playing on defense, the Knights’ fortunes could change for the better.
"I love the way our guys play defensively but sometimes, we’re not very aggressive on offense," he said. "I think that is partly because of our inexperience. We have a lot of young guys who tend to shy away from contact and from getting to their shots."
AJ (40): NC (22): Score by quarters:
AJ (40):Dontarius James 4 4-5 12, Michael Slayton 0 3-3 3, Quinton Bracey 4 0-0 10, Corey Walters 5 0-0 11, Kadrius Kirkland 0 2-2 2, Austin Truesdale 1 0-0 2. Totals: 14 9-11 40
NC (22):Jay Parks 2 0-0 5, Demarious Reel 1 1-2 3, Jeremiah Jenkins 2 0-0 4, Will Jenkins 1 4-4 7, Zach Jones 1 0-0 3. Totals: 7 5-6 22
Score by quarters:First: AJ, 9-2; Halftime: AJ, 17-6; Third: AJ, 21-17; Three-point goals: AJ 3 (Bracey 2, Walters), NC 3 (Parks, W. Jenkins, Jones)