Sand Rock opens strong against top-ranked North Sand Mountain, clinches Northeast Regional berth

Sand Rock’s Kaden Justice slams the ball through the rim in the second half of the Wildcats’ sub-regional game against North Sand Mountain on Tuesday. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director

SAND ROCK – The North Sand Mountain Bison are perennially one of the state’s most prolific scoring teams in Alabama high school basketball. This season they’ve averaged over 72 points per game with shooters all throughout their lineup.

The Sand Rock Wildcats knew it was a distinct possibility they would cross paths with the Bison in the postseason. That’s why head coach John Blackwell scheduled lots of bigger schools and challenging opponents, to prepare the Wildcats for moments like Tuesday’s Class 2A sub-regional showdown with the top-ranked team in the state.

Sand Rock proved it was more than prepared for such a game. The Wildcats gave the Bison a dose of the medicine they’re used to dishing out to their opponents by jumping out to a 31-9 first-quarter advantage. By halftime, they led by 28 and held on in the second half for a 101-88 victory that sends them back to Jacksonville State University for the Northeast Regional Tournament.

Sand Rock (20-10) will play Lanett at Pete Mathews Coliseum on Friday. North Sand Mountain’s season ends at 25-6.

“We knew they were a good team and we had to come out and play good tonight,” said Sand Rock senior point guard Jacob StClair, who led the Wildcats with 33 points, including a 16-of-17 performance from the free-throw line and three 3-pointers. He also had 10 assists and six rebounds. “We knew it was going to be our last game (at Sand Rock).

“The start was definitely the biggest part of the game. We got out to a 22-point lead and it’s hard to come back from that, no matter who you are.”

“I’m tickled to death,” Blackwell said. “You play a team of this caliber and score those kind of points, I was pleased. Take the third quarter out and I was really pleased with the defense.

“We don’t have the best record, but when you play very good, challenging teams – 5A, 6A, 7A teams – then it builds you for games like this. That’s one thing Coach (Kenny) Beck said at halftime. We’re built for this because of the schedule we play.”

The 101 points the Wildcats scored were the most they’ve had all season. Blackwell believes it’s the most a team he’s coached has scored in his 28 years.

Sand Rock has flirted several times with eclipsing triple digits this season before Tuesday’s sub-regional game. They scored 95 in a season-opening win against DAR. They’ve also scored 90 twice against Fyffe in a win and Piedmont in a loss.

But it was Sand Rock’s defense that helped it prevail on Tuesday.

“Defensively it was our best game,” Blackwell said. “Basically every game we’ve played the past four or five games we’ve had to adjust our defense based on who we’re playing. These guys get out there and do a pretty good job. We only gave up nine points in the first quarter, so I was definitely proud of that.”

The Wildcats kept pouring it on in the second quarter, building a 56-28 bulge by halftime, but they knew North Sand Mountain would come out swinging in the third quarter.

And the Bison did.

North Sand Mountain outscored Sand Rock 35-21 in the third, trimming its deficit down to 14 at 77-63. They got within 12 on several occasions in the fourth, but could never get closer than that.

“We knew they were going to come out in the third quarter and really play hard,” Blackwell said. “If we could just sustain the third quarter I felt pretty good. We hit 12 out of 14 free throws in the fourth quarter from four different people. When you get that many free throws in the fourth quarter, they can’t just focus on one person. That’s how you win ball games, when you step to that free-throw line and keep scoring. That was big.”

Kaden Justice also had a big night for the Wildcats. He connected on three 3-pointers and scored 28 points. He also grabbed 12 rebounds.

Ben Dale delivered 13 points and four boards. Jake Middlebrooks managed 12 points and seven rebounds. Brian Giles finished with seven points and four rebounds.

Konner Brown led the Bison with 22 points. Andrew Palmer and Landon Keller collected 12 points apiece. Kaden Brown and Nyle Poore both posted eight points. Chandler Sullivan rang for seven points. Brody Helton and Jack Johnson both finished with six points.

“We knew what we had to do,” Justice said. “Coach Blackwell did a great job of getting us film. The players really took initiative of watching film inside and outside of school. We knew our offense would be there, we knew what we had to do defensively. Even though they scored 88, they’re a really good offensive team. To hold that team to nine points in the first quarter, that’s just great. You can’t ask for more.”

The Wildcats now have a couple of days to prepare for Lanett, a 61-39 winner over Ranburne in other sub-regional action on Tuesday.

“This bunch is focused,” Blackwell said. “I think they’re ready to play. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but I don’t think we’re going to back down. I think we’ll play tough and battle.”

“JSU is always special,” StClair said. “To do it one last time, I think we’ve got a good shot.”

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