Judging by the down-to-the-wire thriller Atholton and Long Reach had played to close out the regular season just over a week earlier, Raiders’ coach Jared Albert fully expected another game that came to the wire when the two met Friday night in the opening round of the 3A East region playoffs.
That’s why, even as the visiting Lightning trimmed a once double-digit deficit down to just one point late in the fourth quarter, Albert implored his team to stay the course.
And, in front of a near-capacity crowd, the Raiders did exactly that.
Justin Oates (8 points) delivered three blocks, Casey Parkins (19 points) hit a key layup in transition and the duo of Maxwell Murray (10 points) and Phillip Mitchell combined to sink three foul shots — all within the final minute of the game — to help Atholton pull away for a 66-60 victory.
“We talked about it before the game, our teams are very similar and we’ve played more than our share of close games over the course of the season. Sometimes we’ve been on the right end and sometimes we’ve been on the wrong end, but I fully expected this one to come down to the wire as well,” said Albert, whose team defeated Long Reach on a buzzer-beater in the last meeting. “So even when we did extend that lead, you just kind of knew [Long Reach] still had another run in them and I think we were prepared for that. It just came down to valuing possessions, making sure the rebounds were ours and controlling the little things we could control.
“For the most part, in that closing minute, I thought we did all those things extremely well and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
Long Reach, which was led by 19 points from Josh Jones in the loss, had the ball down one with a minute left and ended up with two different shots at taking its first lead since late in the first half. But Oates got a hand on both attempts and that sparked a run out in transition, which ended with Murray laying in a basket with 31 seconds remaining that put the Raiders back ahead by three.
The Lightning failed to convert on its next possession as well, forcing the team to foul and setting up Atholton to ice the game away.
Albert said that it wasn’t one player or one play that ultimately swung the game in his team’s favor. Instead, he pointed to the collective effort of his group — featuring nine different players that scored, including 11 points from Jordan Marsh off the bench — as being the difference between winning and losing.
“A lot of big plays were made down the stretch by a lot of different guys,” Albert said. “Jordan Marsh probably had his best game of the entire year for us, just a monster on the boards. Justin with a couple huge defensive plays and rebounds, big baskets from Justin and Casey … really every guy that stepped on the court left everything they had out there.”
The first half featured four lead changes and no lead larger than seven points for either team. After one quarter, Long Reach led 15-14 and at the half Atholton held a 31-28 advantage.
It was in the third quarter, though, that the Raiders created a little separation. Murray hit back-to-back threes as part of a 9-0 run that helped Atholton open up its largest lead of the night at 48-36 with 1:04 left in the third quarter.
Long Reach, however, never went away. Jones helped the Lightning close the third quarter on a 5-0 spurt to get back within seven points. Then Long Reach methodically chipped away at its deficit throughout the fourth quarter.
It was with 1:14 left in regulation that a layup by Elijah Modeste made it a one-point game. As it turned out, though, that was as close as the Lightning would be able to get.
Atholton pitched a shutout the rest of the way and pulled away for the win.
The Raiders advance now to face top-seeded Centennial on Monday.
Atholton 66, Long Reach 60 (3A East)
A (11-12): Parkins 19, Marsh 11, Murray 10, Robinson 8, Oates 8, Rankin 4, Daniel 3, Carey 2, Mitchell 1.
LR (7-16): Jones 19, Dix 10, Thompson 6, Lee 6, Davis 6, Martin 4, Olivis 3, Modeste 2, Casserly 2, Young 2.
Half: 32-29 A.
Reach Brent Kennedy at email@example.com or follow him on twitter @BKBSunSports