By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD – The Effingham County boys displayed heart, grit and determination against highly regarded visitor Grovetown on Friday night.
But at that point of the season, just three games into region play, the Rebels still might be a couple of minutes from where they want to be.
ECHS battled, but wilted down the stretch. The defending Class 6A state champion scored seven points in the final 1:37 to break a tie and defeat the Rebels 60-53.
Now saddled with two region losses, ECHS (12-5, 2-2) faces an uphill climb to the regular-season top spot in the competitive seven-team league, but they showed they should be a tough out against anyone in the region tournament.
“I told them if we can play like that for four quarters, I’ll play anybody in the state,” coach Travis Priddy said. “We fought, we battled and if we give that effort for four quarters, I like our chances.”
An electric atmosphere accompanied one of the school’s biggest home basketball games in recent years and the Rebels didn’t back down from a showdown against a team MaxPreps ranked No. 17 nationally in the preseason.
ECHS hit its first four shots (two 3-pointers) to take a 10-0 lead and had a 13-point advantage (21-8) after one quarter and led by 15 (33-18) at halftime.
But things were going way too good on Friday the 13th for Priddy.
“I hate having big halftime leads,” he said. “I told (the team), I guarantee the other coach is yelling and screaming and we’re going to get their best punch in the first couple of minutes (of the third quarter). If you’re not ready for it, they’ll run you out of the gym.”
Grovetown (8-8, 4-0) never panicked and continually worked the ball inside to use its considerable size advantage. Six-foot-7 Derrion Reid and 6-6 Frankquon Sherman combined for 30 of the team’s 41 second-half points.
The two-man inside dominance spelled double trouble for the Rebels who slipped into foul trouble and surrendered free throws trying to defend.
During the third quarter, the Warriors closed their deficit by making 13 of 16 free throws. ECHS starters Rashad Scott and Timmy Brown each picked up their fourth fouls in the quarter. Scott and the Rebels’ tallest player, 6-5 Jordan Goldwire, fouled out in the fourth quarter. Leading scorer Keion Wallace fouled out in the final minute.
“We were trying to be smart, keeping our hands straight up, but (calls) didn’t seem to go our way,” Priddy said. “What can you do? You’re trying to keep them off the boards, but they got to the free-throw line and got a lot of easy ones. Basketball is a game (where) whoever gets the most easy (points) usually wins.”
After surrendering just eight field goals in the first 23 minutes, ECHS gave up 10 in the final nine minutes.
Wallace had nine of his 16 points in the second half, including two clutch, game-tying free throws with 1:37 left, but the rest of the team managed just 11 points after intermission.
Three days earlier, the Rebels fell just short in a 52-51 loss at Lakeside Evans.
“We have to make sure we’re (giving maximum effort) against everybody,” Priddy said. “We fought through. We’ll learn from it.”
Saturday night, ECHS posted a fourth-quarter rally to defeat Glynn Academy, 53-46.
The Rebels trailed by 12 (30-18) in the first half and were down 41-36 in the fourth quarter before producing a 13-0 run.
Wallace finished with 13 points and Hayden Eason had 11.
ECHS will have another tough week ahead. The Rebels traveled to Brunswick on Jan. 17 before returning home against South Effingham on Friday.