By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director
JACKSONVILLE – There’s a gospel song that’s one of Sand Rock boys basketball coach John Blackwell’s favorites. It’s called “Through the Fire.”
Blackwell likens a few of the lyrics from that song to this year’s Wildcats.
“It goes ‘He never promised the cross would not be heavy, a hill was not going to be hard to climb. He never promised a victory without a fight, and help would come in time,’” Blackwell said. “These guys, no matter what the deal is at halftime, no matter what the challenge is in the first half, they stick with it. They stick together.”
Sticking together through the fire has now rewarded Sand Rock with its first Class 2A Final Four appearance since 2011.
Behind senior point guard Jacob StClair’s game-high 33 points (including four 3-pointers), eight assists, six rebounds and three steals, Sand Rock secured its latest trip to Birmingham with an 83-67 victory over Pisgah in the Northeast Regional final at Pete Mathews Coliseum on Tuesday.
StClair, who also connected on 13-of-16 free-throw attempts, earned the 2A regional Most Valuable Player honor.
“It’s a dream come true,” StClair said of the Wildcats clinching a spot in the Final Four. “We’ve had a saying ‘Why not us?’ the whole season. We just come out and try to win every game and play as a team.”
The Wildcats (22-10) did just that on Tuesday. Senior guard Ben Dale was the second of three Sand Rock players to score in double figures. He delivered 22 points and 13 rebounds. Dale was what Pisgah coach Carey Ellison called “the x-factor.”
“We were working hard on the main two (StClair and Kaden Justice) like most people do,” Ellison said. “Somebody else was going to have to come through for them and 4 (Dale) did a great job. He made the easy ones and he made some tough ones. He made it tough in the paint. He just played a complete game I thought. He was the x-factor for them.”
“We watch film and know what we’re doing,” Dale said. “The backside was open, and it just happens to be my position, so I got a lot of easy looks. They found me there. All I had to do was finish.”
Blackwell said the Wildcat post players tipped him off at halftime about the backside. Dale, an all-tournament selection, scored 12 of his points and grabbed seven of his rebounds in the second half.
“Ben Dale started playing basketball a little bit late (in his varsity career). I still don’t think he understands how good he can be,” Blackwell said. “When he plays within himself, that means equal to or above the rim and making good passes, he’s a tremendous ball player. I think tonight the fans got to see just a little glimpse of how good Ben Dale is as a basketball player.”
The third Sand Rock senior to reach double figures was guard Brian Giles. He netted 15 points, including a pair of 3-pointers, and grabbed six rebounds.
Justice added eight points and grabbed seven rebounds. He helped ignite the Wildcats in the first half with a thunderous dunk late in the first quarter. Justice was fouled on the play but couldn’t connect on the ensuing free throw.
Justice, also an all-tournament selection, added a second slam late in the fourth quarter to put the exclamation point on the Wildcat win.
“The dunk in my last game (against Lanett) was my favorite high school moment of my entire varsity career, but this one (in the first half) I think tops it,” Justice said. “I wished I could’ve hit the free throw, but it’s all right.”
Blackwell calls Justice the Wildcats’ “emotional leader.”
“He keeps us loose in the locker room and he kind of ignites us a little bit,” he said. “Jacob is kind of even-keel and Ben is kind of even-keel, but Kaden is right the opposite. Anytime he can get a dunk and anytime he can show some of his emotion he does. Our team feeds off of it, and our fans feed off of it.”
Justice’s dunk seemingly helped put the Wildcats at ease after trailing Pisgah 6-0 early. By the end of the first quarter, Sand Rock trailed a 15-12 margin.
As big as Justice’s first-half dunk was in the first quarter, Dale was the catalyst for the Wildcats late in the second. He scored Sand Rock’s final eight points before halftime, including a buzzer-beating layup to give the Wildcats a 33-27 edge at halftime.
Pisgah (14-12) had no answer for Dale and StClair in the third. The duo scored 20 of Sand Rock’s 21 points in the quarter, helping the Wildcats extend their lead to 54-43 heading into the fourth quarter.
Sand Rock outscored the Eagles 29-24 in the fourth for the final.
Pisgah sank 12 3-pointers in the game. Jakob Kirby led the Eagles with 19 points, including five treys. Luke Gilbert added 14 points, including a pair of treys. He also had eight rebounds and a pair of assists. Legion McCray managed 10 points, four boards and three assists. Mason Holcomb had eight points and five boards. Caleb Jenkins came off the bench to post seven points, three rebounds and two assists.
Gilbert and Kirby, along with Lanett’s Elijah Whitfield, were all-tournament selections.
“I’m very proud of our guys,” Ellison said. “We went from from nowhere to having a chance to be in the Final Four. You can’t take anything away from Sand Rock, their effort and their guys. StClair is amazing. Coach Blackwell has always done a tremendous job all the way back to his days at Glencoe with the girls. I think we ran into the wrong team on the wrong night.”
Sand Rock will now prepare for the Central Regional champion – either Aliceville or Cornerstone of Birmingham – on Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Aliceville and Cornerstone play for the right to join Sand Rock in the Final Four on Wednesday at 5:45 p.m.
Blackwell said he feels like the Wildcats are playing with a chip on their shoulders.
“We’ve not been ranked in the top 10 all year, but if you look at our schedule, we play a lot of 5, 6, 7A teams. We went to Panama City and we’re playing schools that have 2,500 and 3,000 people in their schools. Here we are and we don’t have 700 in Pre-K through 12. We’ve played tough competition.
“We tell them as coaches if you hang in there, at the end of the year it’s going to pay off for you. Here we are going to the Final Four. I think it’s all paid off.”