Blue Devils dispatch White Plains in regional semifinals

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Photo: Etowah’s Josh Graham drives in for a layup as White Plains’ Z.J. Rosario defends during the Blue Devils’ 58-50 victory in the Northeast Regional Tournament Class 4A boys semifinals on February 18 at Jacksonville State. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger) 

By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor

It’s a good thing James Graves is not a believer in pressing the panic button.
With his team down by as many as 10 points in the first half against White Plains in the Northeast Regional Tournament Class 5A semifinals last Saturday (Feb. 18), the Etowah High boys basketball coach refused to call a time-out.
“Our points come in spurts,” said Graves. “When the other team goes on a 10-0 or 12-0 run, I don’t call timeout. I like to let my kids worked through it, because I know my kids are capable of going on a 10 or 12-0 run the next minute. It always evens to when you play hard and you play consistent. We’re going to give up some layups on the tail end of our press, but we’re also going to make some steals and make some layups.”
Graves’ faith that his team would weather the storm and eventually take control of the game was justified. The Blue Devils never trailed after outscoring White Plains 27 to 9 over the last six minutes of the third quarter en route to a 58-50 victory at Jacksonville State.
The win sent Etowah to its first regional championship appearance in three years, where the Blue Devils will face Jacksonville this Tuesday (Feb. 23) at 2:30 p.m.
“I don’t know if the bright lights got to us early on, but we had to wake up,” said Graves. “I thought our traps were sloppy in the fist half and we weren’t being aggressive enough on the basketball, and I told our kids at halftime that we needed to speed up the pace on both ends. We played [White Plains’] game in the first half. They slowed it down and made it methodical, and we couldn’t make any shots.”
With Etowah coming out of halftime trailing 27-18, Andrew Pierce’s three-point basket cut the deficit to six points. Six points from Jalein Walker pulled the Blue Devils with two points, and respective baskets from Pierce and Josh Graham gave Etowah its first lead of the game. A subsequent 8-2 stretch made it 41-33 in favor of the Blue Devils, and Graham’s buzzer-beating layup put Etowah on top 45-38 heading into the final eight minutes.
The Wildcats drew within five points with two minutes left in the fourth period but got no closer. Etowah by that time was in the double bonus free throw situation. The Blue Devils went to the foul line five times during the final 58 seconds and knocked down five attempts to secure the win.
“I know coming into the game that it the [score] was in the 40s, [White Plains] had a good chance to win, and if we got [the score at 55 and up, we had the better chance to win,” said Graves. “Once we woke up and got some good intensity in the second half, we got [White Plains] into some good traps and didn’t foul when he had them in those traps. We stayed disciplined and make them have to pass [the ball] over us and we got a lot of deflections and steams from that.”
Walker and Graham each finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, while Jameson Scissum added 10. Graham also had six assists and six steals, while Omareon Finch grabbed five rebounds. Josh Wheeler paced White Plains with 17 points, followed by Luke Bussey with 10.
“I had a ship on my shoulder going into halftime,” said Graham “I told the team that being down like this was nothing new and that we cold come back and win this game.”
We knew that we had [White Plains] coming out of the half,” said Scissum: We knew that nobody can run with us, so we just had to play our game.”
“When we pick up on the press and lock down on defense and use our length, it’s hard to get [the ball] past us,” said Walker.
It took a while for the Blue Devils to get their legs under them, as White Plains jumped out to 13-3 lead with three minutes left in the first quarter and had a 14-9 advantage after eight minutes.
The Wildcats maintained the lead throughout the second period, with Bussey’s 3-pointer at 1:33 sending White Plains into the break ahead 27-18.
“We’ve been down 18 or 20 points at halftime and came back to win those games,” said Graves. “I always tell our kids that we’re never out of a game if we continued to play hard and compete. We just try to create a little bit of chaos. Our goal is always to steal [the ball] before they shoot it.”

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