Joe Dix still has yet to see his East Hall High boys basketball team reach its pressure-packed potential on the defensive side.
What he witnessed in small spurts Wednesday night in Gainesville was still enough to hold off fellow unbeaten region foe Union County late in a 77-61 win, its first of the new year.
The victory came at a good time too, not only preserving East Hall’s (7-6, 3-0 Region 7-3A) unbeaten streak in the region, but also putting Dix’s team back on track following a disheartening loss to Gainesville in the Lanierland final on Dec. 30.
But just like in the previous encounter, the win itself for East Hall did not come by comfort. The Vikings, despite its intense pressure, creating 17 Union County turnovers and getting a slew of scoring runs on offense to maintain a double-digit lead for much of the way, nearly squandered it in the final eight minutes.
After trailing by 16 after the third period, Union County (11-2, 2-1) opened the fourth quarter with six-straight points from Sawyer Drake (17 points), and the turnovers ensued from the Vikings’ end of the floor. The Panthers’ scoring flurry eventually grew to a 10-0 run to shrink East Hall’s lead down to six with under four minutes to play.
“We kind of took our foot off the gas a lil bit,” Dix said of the turnaround. “Defensively, I don’t think we played well particularly in the second half.
“But we kept making shots.”
The Vikings answered in the form of back-to-back short-range buckets from Jayvion Rucker and Luke Cooper, and East Hall found its form again. One last trey from Cooper grew the margin back to 11, and the Vikings eventually pulled away on a 7-2 run supplemented by four trips to the free throw line, and one electrifying two-handed jam by Rucker to make it 76-61.
East Hall relied on its pesky defense along with a few extended scoring runs to build a 44-29 halftime lead. The Vikings relentless pressure in transition generated nine first-half turnovers while forcing premature shots by Union County, which only made one 3-pointer for the game.
Meanwhile, Luke Holtzclaw (18 points), who accounted for six of East Hall’s nine treys, drilled 5 of his first 7 attempts from well beyond the arc in the first half. Holtzclaw’s second and third 3-point buckets stretched East Hall’s lead to 24-6 with 1:56 left in the opening period, prolonging an extended scoring run that allowed the Vikings to built a 17-point advantage by the end of the first.
Dix credited much of the defensive success to his big man Rucker, particularly in the half court. The junior forward had five blocks underneath to go along with his 15 point, seven rebound outing.
Cooper (seven rebounds) finished with 15 points, while Darryl Gray added nine for the Vikings. Senior classmate Deonte Evans scored seven, including five in the final quarter.
Candler Colwell tallied 13 points for Union County behind Drake. Pierson Allison (nine points) and Patrick Bagget (six) were others to fuel the Panthers.
“We’ll take it. We’ll run with it certainly,” Dix said. “If we want to go where we want to go, and do what we want to do, we gotta have a better effort defensively.”
East Hall continues its region slate Friday when it hosts much-improved Dawson County (10-2, 2-0) at 8:30 p.m. in Gainesville.
UNION COUNTY GIRLS 58, EAST HALL 55: The reputably effective 3-point game of East Hall could not materialize Wednesday night.
East Hall (7-8, 1-1 Region 7-3A), which missed 14-straight from 3 at one point in the contest, failed to string together the shots it needed to catch the Lady Panthers (9-4, 2-1) late, losing a narrow Region 7-3A contest.
A 3-pointer from East Hall’s Ivey Shadburn cut it to 58-55 with 32 seconds left. But East Hall otherwise ran cold in the closing seconds, as its final two attempts from 3-point range and took a double bounce off the rim during its final possession.
Carly Winters, who made three 3-pointers in the opening period, finished with 14 points to lead the Lady Vikings. Also for East Hall, Summer Lindsey and Shadburn had nine points apiece.
Bailey Daniel paced the Lady Panthers with 17 points, followed by Kait McCaster and Andelia Hill with 14 apiece.