By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
JACKSONVILLE – You can call the Sand Rock Wildcats students of the game.
They take the scouting reports head coach John Blackwell gives them, study film, communicate with each other well, and make adjustments when needed. Add in some strong fundamental play and you get the result they had against an athletic Lanett team on Friday evening in the Class 2A boys Northeast Basketball Regional semifinals.
It wasn’t too flashy, but the Wildcats earned a 68-63 victory that sends them to the regional final for the second time in three seasons. They’ll face Pisgah on Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. at Pete Mathews Coliseum for the right to go to the state tournament in Birmingham. Pisgah defeated LaFayette 57-53 in Friday’s other 2A regional semifinal.
“We felt like if we could play fundamental, ball-fake, do the little things, take care of the ball, we would have a chance,” Blackwell said. “As fast and as aggressive as they play, we felt like we might have a chance to get them in foul trouble. I thought our guys did a good job for the most part playing fundamental.”
“We had talked a lot about stuff we were going to do during the game, mismatches we were going to have,” said senior forward Kaden Justice, who led the Wildcats with 26 points, eight rebounds and three assists. “Our coaches have given us the ability to watch film, given us good scouting reports, so that really helps a lot with what we do during the game.”
The game was close throughout. Lanett (9-9) led 15-14 after a quarter, but Sand Rock (21-10) managed to tie things up by halftime at 21. The Wildcats outscored the Panthers 19-15 in the third to take a 40-36 advantage and never relinquished the lead in the fourth.
“I thought the third quarter was big for us,” Blackwell said. “We made some adjustments, got some easy baskets, and kind of kept them on their heels a little bit. I thought the halftime adjustments and the way the guys handled the adjustments was a big difference.”
Something else that was a big key was senior point guard Jacob StClair began to find his rhythm from 3-point range in the second half. After hitting just one trey in the first half, StClair sank four in the second to help Sand Rock maintain its lead.
He finished with 25 points to go along with six rebounds and a pair of assists.
“I wasn’t hitting like I usually am in the first half,” StClair said. “I come out in the second half and they told me to keep shooting. That gave me extra confidence. I just kept shooting and knocked some down.
“We knew we were going to have to stay patient. We just kept calm and made the right decisions.”
Some of those right decisions included drawing Panther fouls. For the game, Sand Rock went 25-of-29 from the free-throw line, including perfect performances from both Justice and StClair. Justice went 10-for-10, while StClair was 8-of-8 from the charity stripe.
The fouls frustrated the Panthers. Jarrious Goodman and Nakia Bynum Jr. both fouled out of the game. Two other Panthers drew four fouls each, including the game’s leading scorer, Elijah Whitfield.
Whitfield finished with 29 points, including four 3-pointers. He also had eight rebounds, six steals and five assists. Bynum rang for 17 points, including three treys. He also also had five rebounds and three steals. Goodman gained eight points and six boards.
“There were a couple of calls you could kind of say swayed the game, but hat’s off to Sand Rock. They did well shooting the ball tonight,” Lanett coach Trentavious McCants said. “They have a good team, but I feel like my guys gave it their all tonight.”
Ben Dale delivered seven points and four boards for Sand Rock. Brian Giles and Bradley Jackson both contributed three points with eight and six rebounds respectively.