With 6-foot-8 center Ben Bentil on the bench with leg cramps and Sanford 3-point shooting ace Sabri Thompson storming down the court with a chance to tie the game, Austin Tilghman knew he had to do something.
St. Andrew’s muscular guard blocked Thompson’s 3-point attempt at the top of the key, then sprinted the other way for the clinching layup with 8.6 seconds left as the third-ranked Saints held on for a 57-51 victory over top-ranked Sanford on Tuesday night at St. Andrew’s.
“I didn’t want to give them any easy shots,” Tilghman said. “I tried to do that for my big guy. He was injured. I just wanted to make that tough play at the end.”
The three-time defending state champion Warriors don’t lose very often, racking up a 77-6 record over the last 3½ seasons. But this became the second straight season they lost at St. Andrew’s.
“We’re a team still learning how to win,” Saints coach Terrell Myers said. “Luckily, we had the crowd behind us, and that helped us a lot. In every game so far, it has come down to this. We’ve been up, and we’re just trying to figure out how to win.”
Sanford (9-2) got off to a flying start, taking a 7-0 lead on Kyle Rose’s 12-foot jumper, two free throws by Shayne Sanders and a 3-pointer by Todd Hughes. But the Warriors quickly began misfiring, and St. Andrew’s ripped off 13 straight points. Tilghman had eight of those, including an 18-foot jumper that put the Saints up 14-9 with 1:55 left in the first quarter.
“I don’t want to take anything away from [St. Andrew’s], but it was all self-inflicted,” Sanford coach Stan Waterman said. “We took some bad shots, and that ignited a run for them. They got momentum on their side, and we dug ourselves a hole that was tough to get out of.”
St. Andrew’s (9-2) led 28-22 at the half, then really put the hammer down in the third quarter. Bentil scored seven straight points for the Saints, including a thunderous dunk off a missed shot. Then sophomore guard Jordan Bonner took over, hitting three 3-pointers and scoring off an offensive rebound to send St. Andrew’s into the fourth quarter with a 46-32 lead.
The Saints still led 49-38 with five minutes left, but Tilghman sensed what was coming.
“I knew they were going to make a run,” the St. Andrew’s guard said. “In previous years, they’ve always had a big spurt.”
The Warriors scored eight straight to pull within 49-46 with 2:43 to go. The Saints’ lead was down to 53-51 with 23.8 seconds left when Bentil was fouled, cramped up and had to leave the game. Senior Carter Speers, who had not seen a second of action to that point, came off the bench and banked in a free throw to push St. Andrew’s lead to 54-51.
But Speers missed the second foul shot, and Thompson rushed down the court with the ball for Sanford. The senior went up for a 3-pointer, but Tilghman got a hand on the shot and made sure the Saints would be celebrating.
“Luckily, Carter stepped up and hit that free throw off the backboard, or we don’t know what would have happened,” Myers said. “These guys [the Warriors] are champions and they’re going to continue to fight, so you can’t look at the score and assume it’s over.”
Tilghman led St. Andrew’s with 18 points. Bonner added 16 points and Bentil made his usual impact with 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Rose and Thompson each scored 12 for Sanford.
It was entertaining, but plenty of big games remain. These Independent Conference rivals will meet again Feb. 16 at Sanford.
“I told the kids before the game that this was a test for us, but it wasn’t the final exam,” Waterman said.
Give St. Andrew’s an “A” for this one.