Through its scrimmage and the first week of the regular season, the Apalachee High School boys basketball team has shown it may have one of the most important traits in a successful team — the ability to win close games.
That trait was on display Saturday night as the Wildcats rallied from down 4 points in the final two minutes to win 53-49 over Walnut Grove on the opening night of the Apalachee Thanksgiving Tournament.
“Every one of our games have been so close so far,” Apalachee coach Kevin Morris said after the victory.
“We’re doing a good job at the end of the games. We’ve been making some clutch free throws down the stretch and done a lot of other good things, which have been able to outweigh the not-so-good things.
“We’re working toward playing more complete basketball games and being a more complete basketball team and building toward January, when region play starts.”
The Wildcats (3-0), who beat Monroe Area 83-77 on Nov. 15 to open the season, improved to 3-0 on Tuesday with a 70-62 victory over Hebron Christian.
Trailing Walnut Grove 28-25 at halftime, Apalachee outscored the Warriors 16-7 in the third quarter to turn the deficit into a 41-35 advantage.
But the Warriors came roaring back with a 13-3 run and went up 48-44 when Nick Jones drained a 3-pointer with 2:53 remaining in the contest.
That would be the last field goal Walnut Grove would make.
Apalachee forward Derek Miller cut the lead down to 49-48 with 56.1 seconds left and then with 47 seconds to go, Walnut Grove was unable to inbound the ball, even after being forced by the Wildcats to burn two timeouts.
After the Wildcats regained possession, Brandon Bannis was fouled while driving to the basket and went to the free throw line with 39 seconds left.
After sinking the first, Bannis missed the second one, but the 6-foot-6 Miller was there to grab the rebound and put it back up to give Apalachee the lead for good.
On the ensuing possession, Walnut Grove missed a would-be game-tying shot with 2.2 seconds left and was forced to foul. Wildcat senior point guard Omer Ahmed, who led all scorers with 17 points, then knocked down both free throws to seal the victory.
“That was a very good job we did all the way around at the end,” Morris said. “When they had the ball, we were able to make them burn those timeouts. And then we had an unusual problem in that we didn’t have enough team fouls. So we were also able to make some quick fouls without letting too much time run off the clock.
“I was just very proud of how our kids executed there.”
LADY WILDCATS ROLL
Earlier Saturday evening, Apalachee’s girls team was able to generate some sorely-needed offense in a 49-31 win over Walnut Grove to improve to 2-0 on the year.
Senior guard/forward Shania Thomas led the way with 17 points as the Lady Wildcats never trailed throughout the contest.
“It was huge for us to be able to come out and score some points and put a solid game together,” said Apalachee coach Gary Compton, whose team won its opener with Monroe Area in a 33-27 defensive struggle. “I was a little worried going into halftime because we’ve had a tendency to start slow in the third quarter, but we held our own there.
“We out-rebounded them. We played solid defense and I thought we did a pretty good job of handling their pressure and not getting rattled at any point. Overall, we just played faster and smarter and we need to keep doing that each time out.”
Aiding in the more productive offensive night was sophomore forward Nakia Hooks, who scored all 15 of her points after the break and was a force down low, grabbing several rebounds.
“She’s a big key for us inside and is able to kick it outside, and we’ve got some pretty good 3-point shooters,” Compton said of Hooks. “For us to be successful, it’s important for her to play like she did tonight.”
The Lady Wildcats defeated Stephens County 43-34 on Tuesday to run their record to 3-0.
Both Apalachee teams return to action Tuesday at Loganville with the girls set to tip off at 5:45 p.m. and the boys to follow.