By JUSTIN RAINS
The members of the Grapeland boys’ basketball team walked onto the court prior to the start of Friday’s regional semifinal wearing shirts that read, “Unfinished business.”
After a business-as-usual drubbing of Dallardsville Big Sandy ended, the Sandies put them right back on, one piece of business complete, but still one to go.
The third-ranked Sandies started and ended strong, and held on in the middle, for a 74-61 victory over the Wildcats here at Tyler Junior College’s Wagstaff Gym, earning them a trip to the regional final today.
It’s the first time in three-straight trips to the regional tournament that Grapeland has survived to play on Saturday.
“That’s all these kids talked about yesterday, (saying), ‘Coach, we want to get over the hump. We want to get over the hump,’” GHS coach Owen Clifton said. “I just reassured them that it was just another game.
“We’re just really excited to get to go on to the next game.”
The Sandies will take on San Augustine at 10 a.m. today in a rematch of an early-season game that Grapeland won handily, 78-61.
But, that was early in the season after a playoff run by San Augustine’s football team.
Grapeland opened Friday’s game with an 8-0 and never looked back, though pulling away from the Wildcats proved to be difficult.
Big Sandy seemed to settle down a bit after a timeout, and kept within striking distance the rest of the first quarter.
It wasn’t until midway through the second when the Sandies again hit the gas, when Patrick Walker capped a 5-0 Grapeland run with a steal and a lay-up to put the Sandies up 13.
The only thing that ended that run, which stretched to a 17-6 advantage, was halftime as Grapeland took a 38-19 lead into the break.
But, Big Sandy refused to lay down, and the Wildcats came out firing in the second half. Walker made it a bit easier when he picked up his fourth foul with 2:47 left in the third quarter.
Less than a minute later, the Wildcats’ Jalen Abbey hit a three to cut the Grapeland lead to 12 at 54-42, the closest Big Sandy had been since the early parts of the second quarter.
“We knew they were going to make a run,” Clifton said. “A team like that doesn’t give up. They didn’t get this far for that.”
But, playing in place of Walker, William Whitehead turned the momentum around with a steal and then a thunderous dunk in transition to extend the lead back to 14.
“In the first half I had a bad half, but in the second half coach just told me to keep my head up,” Whitehead said. “I went back out there and just played my game, kept my head up and played defense.”
Whitehead scored only six points in the game, but five of them came in the late stages of the third quarter, and four came via transition dunks.
“It gets our kids up and our fans get excited about those dunks and they’re great, but it was his defense that got it,” Clifton said. “His hands got the steals, he was filling the passes up and, when he’s playing, he’s a big help for us.”
From there it was all but over. Any time Big Sandy threatened, the Sandies easily answered, until with the seconds ticking down in the fourth, Walker threw the ball into the Wagstaff rafters as the Sandie sideline and crowd exploded as the buzzer sounded.
For a moment, the unfinished business had been finished. Now, there’s new business at hand.
“We set our goal out that we wanted to make the state tournament,” Clifton said. “We’re one win away, and that’s pretty awesome for us.”
Jacolby Simpson led Grapeland with 25 points to go along with six rebounds, while Quaderius Whitt added 16 points.
“I’m not worried about scoring, but whatever I’ve got to do to help this team, I’m going to do it,” said Simpson, who moved to Grapeland over the summer after playing at Lovelady last year.
Walker finished with a double-double, scoring 12 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. He also had a team-high four assists in the victory.
Jacques Faulk added eight points.
Abbey led Big Sandy with 24, including four made three-pointers. Both Naaman Williams and Angel Bullock finished with 10 points.
San Augustine used a big third quarter to pull away from Kerens in the other semifinal, winning 81-60. Kerens had the lead as late as 1:51 in the third quarter.