Flyers Thrive After Mid-Season Slide
The Sandhills Community College basketball team was searching for answers Jan. 19 after being defeated 81-65 by arch-rival Davidson County CC for its fifth loss in the previous eight games.
A Flyer squad that had won its first 12 games of the season some how shook itself out of that slump and went on to win 15 of its final 16 games, including the last 11.
The capper was a 101-86 victory over Cedar Valley College of Lancaster, Texas, in last Saturday’s championship game at Sullivan County CC in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y.
“We had about a 10-day layoff before the holidays and when we came back we really forgot what we were doing great,” first-year Flyer coach Mike Apple said. “Honestly, it wasn’t just the players, it was the coaches too.”
The defending regular season Region X champions were 0-2 in the conference after the home court loss to Davidson. Any visions of a grand ending to the season had to be faint ones at that time.
After that game Flyer coaches and players remained in the locker room for more than 20 minutes.
“We talked about the fact that we’re playing very hard, trying very hard, but we’re just not getting a lot accomplished at the offensive end,” Apple said at the time. “We’re very out of it as far as having a good chemistry on the court right now. Until we fix it, we’re going to struggle. When we fix it, we’ll be back to scoring 80 or 90 points a game.”
One of the fixes was to have Dre Huntley coming off the bench to join Raheem Jolliffe, also a starter earlier in the season, to form a dynamic second unit that would contrast with the first group’s ability to pound the ball down low in the half court, as well as score from the perimeter.
Jolliffe scored 27 points and the Flyers defeated Wytheville 110-98 in the next game. They exceeded the century mark in eight of their next nine outings leading in to the Region X tournament. Their final loss of the season came during that stretch when Davidson overcame a double-digit second-half deficit to beat the Flyers again.
According to Apple, getting back to the way the team played earlier was a matter of tempo.
“We were kind of letting the other team dictate it,” Apple said this week. “We weren’t playing as fast as we had. I distinctly remember telling the kids after the second Davidson loss when we were ahead of them by about 16 points that it looked like we figured them out.
“I sounded pretty smart looking back, but I told them if you’ll remember we’re an up-tempo team, we may not lose another game the rest of the way.”
Jolliffe and Makell Lotharp both earned national player of the week recognition down the stretch. As a team that finished in a tie for second place in Region X, the Flyers went into the postseason unranked. In the Region X, District 7 and national championship tournaments, the Flyers followed a pattern. They would win close games in the preliminary rounds before winning by wide margins in the title contests.
The Flyers stunned a Davidson team that had defeated them four of five times over the past two years, grabbing a 25-point lead before eventually winning the Region X final, 104-82. They became the highest scoring junior college team in the nation in the process. A week later they defeated Prince George’s 82-67 for the District 7 title that qualified them for the eight-team national championship tournament in just the fourth year of basketball at SCC.
By now the inside presence of 6-foot-10 Louis Craft and 6-6 Erick Ewing was giving the Flyers an intimidation and shot-blocking presence no other team could match.
Led by tournament MVP Daquain Towns, the Flyers did what championship teams have to do sometimes — just survive — as they did in one-point wins over No. 1 ranked Brookdale CC (N.J.) and Bronx CC in the first two games in New York. Cedar Valley College was now the only team standing between the Flyers and a national title.
After the Suns’ 83-76 overtime win over SUNY Delhi in Saturday’s first semifinal game, coach Ron McDowell described his team’s game plan as “run and run, Texas-style.”
After a season of rehearsals, 11 players scored in the first 13 minutes of the big recital on the way to a commanding 17-point first half lead as Apple’s squad won the championship, Flyers’ style.
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