Luella’s A.J. Banton scored 11 points for the Lions, including the game’s last three with just 1.6 seconds left in regulation to give the Lions the win. (Staff Photo: Gabriel Stovall)
HAMPTON — Jamond Sims hasn’t had a birthday yet this year, but the Luella coach said he felt like he had witnessed a few of them at once, after what happened Friday night.
Luella had to fight from behind twice — erasing a seven-point deficit in the first quarter, and a four-point Lovejoy lead late in the fourth to defeat Lovejoy 57-56 in Friday’s showdown between the top two teams in Region 2-AAAAAA.
“I feel like I’m about two or three years older after that one,” Sims said. “Tonight was just kind of like a carry over from the Newton game. Our guys bought in, stuck together and performed when it got tough. I’m proud of those guys.”
And one guy in particular. A.J. Banton, who had 11 points in the win, was the reason why Luella won on a night where Lovejoy stymied Luella’s 7-footer, Doral Moore and got TeMarcus Blanton into foul trouble.
The South Carolina signee fouled out halfway through the fourth quarter with a team high 14 points. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time than with Luella trailing by four late, and seemingly having lost all momentum.
In an instant, though, Banton would gain it back.
Lovejoy had a 56-53 lead with just 8.5 seconds remaining in regulation when Jahir Cabeza stepped up to the free throw line and missed both shots. Luella’s Charles Brown grabbed the rebound and handed it off to Banton, who bolted down court, drove through the lane, and sank a layup while falling to the floor after a Lovejoy player fouled him.
That basket tied the game at 56 with 1.6 seconds remaining. And Banton calmly sank the free throw to cap the three-point play, eventually touching off a Luella celebration at mid court after Marlon Curington’s desperation heave from half court glanced off the backboard at the buzzer.
Banton’s clutch play signified for Sims that his guard is starting to respond to the expectations placed on him.
“We took him out of the line up in South Carolina at the Chick-fil-A tournament, and he wasn’t too happy about that,” Sims said. “But we challenged him. We told him we wanted to see some more defense and confidence, and more energy out of him, and tonight, he delivered and responded. And that’s all you can ask for.”
At times during the night, it didn’t seem as if such late game heroics would be necessary.
The Wildcats shot out of the gate fast, as Darius Bridges and Marlon Curington both hit a pair of jump shots in transition to give Lovejoy a 4-2 lead. That stretched to a 9-2 advantage after DeAndre Mathis sank two free throws after being fouled whiledriving to the basket. The Lovejoy defense promptly forced a turnover, which gave Cabeza license to drain a three-pointer from the left elbow.
But as dominant as Lovejoy was to start, Luella’s response was even more emphatic. It came by way of a 14-0 run that began with a TeMarcus Blanton jumper just inside the free-throw line, followed by Andre Banton’s s trey from the corner.
The Luella side of the gym got treated next to a crowd-pleasing alley-oop dunk from Banton to Doral Moore. Banton and Blanton punctuated the burst with a corner three and driving lay-in respectively. By the time it was over, Luella had surpassed Lovejoy to claim a 16-9 lead in the first quarter.
Despite the late first quarter dominance, Lovejoy hung around before the half, thanks to a big second quarter by Mathis. He scored eight of his game-high 20 points in the second frame. Still, it was Luella that took a 33-26 lead into the locker rooms.
Lovejoy began the third quarter the same way Luella ended the first, by scoring the first seven points of the new half. But it wasn’t until Blanton’s foul trouble, and a key three point play on a driving layup that Lovejoy found the lead again. Although Curington missed the bonus, Cabeza grabbed the rebound and laid it back in to give Lovejoy a 51-47 lead midway through the fourth quarter before Luella’s furious come back began.
The loss dropped Lovejoy to 10-5 overall and 4-1 in region play. Luella improved to an even 7-7 overall, but now sits atop Region 2-AAAAAA with a 4-0 mark.