By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SAVANNAH – With their Region 2-AAAAAA basketball slate only a few weeks away, the South Effingham Mustangs had a chance to gain valuable experience at the Savannah Holiday Classic.
The Mustangs (6-5) battled teams with height, dealt with foul trouble and overcame missing players during the three-day, three-game tournament.
“Now they have a test for it,” said SEHS coach Rico Campbell, after his squad won one of the three games to finish sixth in the Washington Square bracket.
South knocked off Islands (62-40) on Friday night, but squandered a 16-point lead in a foul loss to Savannah High (71-62) on Thursday.
The Mustangs played without two starters and a key reserve because of holiday commitments and an illness during a 66-46 setback to Statesboro on Saturday.
Campbell’s son Isaiah was named to the all-tournament team. “This was like playing with free money,” Rico Campbell said.
“It doesn’t count (toward region play) so it’s a chance to get some experience. You come to these (tournaments) to get better.”
The tournament was also a reunion for Campbell. Thursday’s game was at Johnson High, where he earned Region 3-AAA Coach of the Year accolades during the 2018-19 basketball season.
On Saturday, Campbell, a Statesboro native, coached against a former neighbor, Blue Devils coach Keith Legree. Campbell, a track star, and Legree, a basketball star, both entered the Statesboro High Hall of Fame in 2011.
Legree went on to play at Cincinnati. Campbell went to Savannah State University on a track scholarship.
“I lived so close (to Legree) I could walk to his house,” Campbell said. “He was three years older, so he’s like a big brother to me. He was a guy who motivated me. He got a scholarship so I had to try and get one too.”
Their friendly competition revived again Saturday. Campbell and the Mustangs were short-handed but stayed within six (24-18) with 1:13 to go in the first half before the Blue Devils pulled away.
Drew McMillen was a bright spot. In a starting role, McMillen, who had missed time because of a fractured hand, was SEHS’ second-leading scorer with 10 points.
Senior forward Devin Hallman had 11.
The team’s overall leading scorer Justice Mydell and Kahmari Bacon were missing because of holiday commitments and Elijah Brittain was out with an illness.
In the tournament opener against Savannah High, the full-strength Mustangs led by 10 (17-7) less than six minutes into the game.
SEHS had a 32-16 advantage three minutes into the second quarter, but with starters Isaiah Campbell and Rakeam Williams fouling out in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, the taller Blue Jackets broke a 59-59 tie with a 12-3 run in the final 3:37.
Savannah High outshot the Mustangs 41-6 from the free-throw line. The Jackets made only 16 of their foul shots; SEHS made three.
Mydell had a team-leading 17 points.
“We’re an under-sized team and (foul trouble) is something we’re going to have to deal with,” Rico Campbell said. “We can’t put teams on the line. We have to box out and stop teams from getting offensive rebounds. We have to hit our shots when we’re open.”
The Mustangs played without Mydell and Bacon on Friday, but rode Isaiah Campbell’s 21 points en route to an easy victory over Islands.
Gavin Hiatt and Hallman had 11 and 10 points respectively.
“I was pleased with our effort, but we have plenty of things to work on during the break,” said Rico Campbell, whose squad returns to action Jan. 6 at home against rival Effingham County.