WILMINGTON – The Sanford boys basketball team got everything it wanted on Thursday night.
A challenging environment filled with fans hoping to see an upset … check. A worthy opponent capable of making a couple of runs and creating some adversity … check. A few 15-foot jumpers from an unexpected source … check.
The top-ranked Warriors had some anxious moments, but turned it up in the fourth quarter and pulled away for a 57-45 victory over No. 6 St. Elizabeth at the St. E Center.
“It was a state tournament atmosphere,” Sanford coach Stan Waterman said. “It’s the kind of game where you have the ebbs and flows, the ups and downs. We played well, and then not so well, and then we got it together.
“It was a good game for us. We learned a little bit about who we are, and I think that’s going to help us down the road.”
Point guard Mikey Dixon got to the rim repeatedly for 21 points, and shooting guard Eric Ayala added 15 points and 10 big rebounds. But the Warriors were happiest to see 17 points from 6-foot-8 junior Jake Walsh, including three times when he stepped away from the basket and hit mid-range jumpers.
“It’s a huge help to us,” Waterman said of Walsh’s shooting. “Everybody knows that Mikey and Eric and our guards are our primary scorers. But if teams have to pay a little bit of attention to Jake and that mid-range game, which is very effective, it’s going to open things up for us.”
After Mike Piekarski opened the game with a 3-pointer for St. E, Sanford (7-3) ran at every opportunity. Dixon scored on the break, Ayala drove for a layup and popped a 3-pointer from the left wing, and Walsh powered up a short jumper for a 9-3 lead.
The Warriors kept the pedal to the metal, as Dixon scored on an offensive rebound and Dixon and Walsh broke away for three more buckets in transition for an 18-8 cushion after one quarter.
A 15-footer by Dixon made it 28-15 with 3:02 left in the second quarter. But the Vikings (7-3) closed the half with a 10-0 run, getting buckets from four different players. Piekarski made a steal and beat the buzzer with a layup to pull St. E within 28-25.
The Vikings kept the momentum early in the second half. Malik Curry tied it with a fast-break jumper, then swished a 3-pointer from the right corner to push St. E ahead 35-32, the Vikings’ first lead since 3-0.
But Sanford slowly righted the ship, closing the quarter with an 8-2 run to take a 40-37 lead. The Warriors began to execute better, and Walsh sandwiched 15- and 17-foot jumpers around a Dixon 3-pointer to stretch Sanford’s advantage to 49-39 with 4:33 to play.
“It’s part of the game that not many people know I have,” Walsh said. “They were giving it to me, so I took them with confidence and knocked them down.”
The Warriors were at their best when they spread the floor late, as Ayala scored off the offensive glass and got two easy baskets against the Vikings’ full-court pressure.
“We were just breaking the press and getting easy layups,” Ayala said. “We were just executing our plays.”
Sophomore Jordan Money led St. E with 20 points, scoring on several strong drives down the lane. But Waterman was happy to see Sanford recover from its mid-game lull.
“I thought we played really well in the first quarter, and in the fourth quarter,” the coach said. “I thought we kind of got away from what we were trying to do in the second quarter and they made that little run, but we were calm.
“We never panicked, and that’s the sign of a good team.”
Contact Brad Myers at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ