Moir Christmas Classic: Shaw column: Hornets have the faith

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2008

By David Shaw
Salisbury Post
OK, so the trophy stays put. But just how did the Salisbury boys basketball team rise from 6 feet under to four points up in Tuesday’s Sam Moir Christmas Classic final?
“We got faith, man,” Brandon Abel explained after the Hornets outscored top-seeded West Rowan 61-57 and won their second straight title. “We just kept saying, ‘Don’t let up, don’t let up.’ This was the game everybody wanted to see, so we had motivation from everywhere. ”
Yeah, but they barely had a pulse early in the second quarter. Down 23-9 and unable to make a layup, Salisbury wasn’t quite dead ó but the vultures were circling above.
“We were probably over-excited,” point guard John Knox said. “West Rowan was a lot more relaxed. Their brains were set to go out and do the job. Our brains were hyped up ó and we let that get to us.”
Thaddeus Williams said Salisbury, which made only 3 of 15 first-period shots, may have been mesmerized by the West Rowan label.
“This was a chance to prove ourselves to everyone in the county and the state,” he said. “But I’d say we were a little awe-struck by the moment at first.”
What began unfolding with 5:28 remaining the second quarter ran parallel to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, minus the psychedelia. Salisbury transformed its horrendous, hide-the-women-and-children start into an exciting, edge-of-your-seat finish.
“It started with defense,” said Abel, an all-tournament selection. “We started trapping them with our basic defense, and they couldn’t adjust.”
Or, as winning coach Jason Causby spun it, “We started trapping the right way.”
In any case, Salisbury’s comeback was launched when Abel missed the front end of a one-and-one. Knox, all 5-foot-8 of him, Roto-Rootered his way around 6-7 K.J. Sherrill for the rebound and hit a putback.
“They’ve got some big people,” MVP Darien Rankin said. “We had to box out and burn ’em, run ’em and keep our legs fresh. When we were down all those points, we had to keep them off the boards and run the game our way, not there’s.”
Salisbury’s way meant forcing 24 turnovers and limiting the Falcons to 43 shots from the floor, 20 fewer than they attempted in Monday’s semifinal win against Carson.
“We didn’t care about any of that,” said Rankin, who contributed 20 points, eight rebounds and four steals. “We were still losing, and we didn’t come this far for nothing. It was time to suck it up.”
It was time for Rankin’s three-point play, a steal-drive-layup combo that drew the Hornets within 23-14.
Then came layups from the firm of Abel, Knox & Abel ó and quite abruptly, West was clinging to a three-point lead with 3:45 remaining in the half. A last-minute basket by Williams trimmed the deficit to one at the break.
“At first you could feel everybody getting down,” said Knox, who had 13 points and three assists off the Salisbury bench. “But then (Causby) told us to get our heads up and live in the moment. Next thing you know, we were right back in it.”
Salisbury didn’t take the lead for keeps until Jahaan Hailey drained a 3-pointer from the right side with just under five minutes to play. An even bigger shot was delivered by Knox, who buried a rainbow 3 that put the Hornets ahead 56-50 with 1:30 to go.
“We needed that shot because they were packing down on our inside game,” he said. “They were making us shoot from out there. When I hit it I thought, ‘Yes, we’ve got this now.’ That shot sealed it.”
And with it came a championship that was seemingly headed West.
“Everybody doubted us,” said Abel, flashing a smile that would light Times Square. “We just kept pushing. We took their best shot in the first quarter. We weren’t taking any more.”