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Prep Basketball: Hornets lose a tough one to 4A Smith

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — It was an unusual matchup in the Salisbury gym on Saturday with 4A Greensboro Ben L. Smith visiting the 2A Hornets.
The atmosphere was loud and it felt like a playoff game. Smith made clutch free throws and handed Salisbury its first loss of the season, 62-57.
“This game came about because there’s not a lot of people that want to play either one of us,” Smith coach Derrick Partee said with a smile. “Only the conference champion is automatic for the playoffs now, and everything else comes down to overall record. So we’ve had some people drop us from the schedule, and Salisbury’s had some people drop them. Salisbury called us up and, hey, we both needed a game.”
It was a good one. You don’t often see teams in the Salisbury gym as tall and rangy as Smith. The biggest guy from Smith, 6-foot-10 junior Jaylan Gainey wasn’t a major factor in the scorebook, but he kept balls alive on the glass and he made it difficult for the Hornets to finish in the lane. He also helped get Salisbury’s big men in awful foul trouble.
The two most polished players for Smith were tall guards — 6-5 Isaiah Bigelow, who scored 13, and 6-3 Tyrece Cheek, who had 17 of his 19 points in the second half. Bigelow and Cheek made the clutch free throws at the end.
“This was a rowdy place as we knew it would be and a very tough environment for a road team,” said Partee, who has some family roots in Salisbury. “I was proud of our guys for keeping their composure and making those key free throws.”
It looked grim for the Hornets early. Bigelow got loose for six swooping points in about a minute as Smith’s Eagles (5-1) surged to an 11-3 lead.
“We play so hard that it makes me proud as a coach,” Salisbury coach Bryan Withers said. “But it’s early, so we didn’t always make the smartest decisions.”
The Hornets were fiercer defensively than they were in Thursday’s win against Lake Norman and they also took care of the ball a lot better. They dug in, and they clawed back to 14-all early in the second quarter.
But the fouls were starting to pile up. Tre Oats, a 6-foot-6 post who came into the game averaging 19 points and 9 rebounds for the Hornets, had to sit down with his third foul, and Smith pushed ahead 28-22 at halftime.
Salisbury (3-1) had shot a dismal 6-for-33 (18 percent) prior to the break, and its best shooter, Will Leckonby, hadn’t scratched, but the Hornets were still in the game.
Zae Harris, the other tall starter for Salisbury, got this third and fourth personals in a matter of seconds at the start of the second half. Oats got his fourth a minute later. Both sat down. Guard Trell Baker kept the Hornets from collapsing, but by the end of the third quarter, Smith’s lead was 43-37.
Oats and Harris reported to the scorer’s table at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and the Hornets quickly caught up before a three-point play by Cheek put the visitors back ahead, 48-45, with 5:55 remaining.
A sweet mid-range jumper by Harris and a fearless baseline floater by guard Cameron Gill put the Hornets on top, 49-48, with 4:39 remaining.
And then Salisbury forced a turnover with a backcourt trap.
With the clock moving under four minutes and the crowd roaring, the Hornets took an ill-advised shot — with disastrous results. It led to a three-point play on a fastbreak by Jacob Crutchfield and the fifth foul on Harris.
“Especially playing at home, kids try too hard sometimes to make things happen for their friends and family,” Withers said. “They get too commercial.”
That sequence hurt, but it didn’t lose the game. A stickback by the hard-working Oats with 2:02 remaining put the Hornets ahead, 52-51. After the Hornets forced another turnover, a pair of free throws by Baker provided a 54-51 Salisbury lead with 1:43 remaining.
Cheek’s 3-pointer at the 1:35 mark tied it for the Eagles, and another hasty shot by the Hornets led to the fifth foul on Oats when he tried to crash for the offensive rebound.
A free throw by Bigelow with 1:19 remaining snapped a 54-all tie and put the visitors ahead to stay.
With the Hornets down two with 45 seconds left, Leckonby got to the line to shoot two, but he only made one.
Then Smith was deadly at the foul line the rest of the way, with Bigelow making two big ones and Cheek knocking down four in a row.
The Hornets weren’t far from winning — one more made free throw or one more converted layup might have done it — but Smith escaped with a tense victory.
“Salisbury fought us very well,” Partee said. “This game should help both of us.”
Withers didn’t disagree.
“We’re playing 4As and we’re playing prep schools in order to get better,” he said. “We’re showing that we’re talented enough to play with anyone.”

Greensboro Smith 62, Salisbury 57

SMITH (62)
Cheek 19, Bigelow 13, Dargan 9, Crutchfield 9, Partee 6, Gainey 4, Mason 2.
SALISBURY (57)
Baker 17, Oats 9, Harris 6, Leckonby 5, Robinson 5, T. Mashore 5, S. Williams 4, Horne 2, Gill 2, Fisher 2, McClendon, Goodlett.

Smith 14 14 15 19 — 62
Salisbury 12 10 15 20 — 57

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