Tuesday, February 19, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Red Devils seal up No. 1 seed by beating PA

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville Red Devils sealed up the No. 1 seed from the 5A Central with a 51-35 win over Pulaski Academy on Friday. The win doesn’t yet secure an outright league championship.

Even if the Red Devils lose a major upset to Sylvan Hills in their season finale, and second-place McClellan wins, leaving both teams with identical 12-2 conference records, Jacksonville (20-4, 12-1) owns the tiebreaker by virtue of its two wins over the Crimson Lions in conference play. A win over Sylvan Hills in last night’s game after deadlines, means another outright conference championship for Jacksonville.

The Bruins entered the game with no intentions of letting Jacksonville cruise to a No. 1 seed. Though Jacksonville led the entire game, they couldn’t shake the Bruins and seal the win until late in the game.

Jacksonville built a double-digit lead early in the second quarter, but Pulaski Academy cut into that lead then, and the next three times the lead grew to double figures. Jacksonville coach Vic Joyner gave the Bruins all the credit for staying in the game when they were on the ropes so many times.

“I don’t think we let up on them,” Joyner said. “I think they bowed their backs and made some plays. When they had to have a basket, they got aggressive and got to the rim. That team plays hard.”

Jacksonville’s first double-digit lead came with a run early in the second quarter. Jacksonville led 17-7 before the Bruins scored eight unanswered to make it 17-15 with a minute left in the first half. Jacksonville’s Sergio Berkley got a three-point play before halftime to send the Red Devils into intermission with a five-point lead.

Jacksonville scored six points in a hurry to start the third quarter, quickly turning a close game into an 11-point advantage for the home team at 26-15. Both teams bogged down at that point.

Neither team scored for the next two minutes and 30 seconds. Jacksonville’s Brandon Brockman broke the scoreless streak with a three-point play that made it 29-15 with 3:36 left in the third quarter. The play was sparked by an offensive rebound and brilliant pass by junior guard Sergio Berkley.

Berkley stayed with a ball that was being bounced around by several players from both teams. When he finally gained control along the baseline to the left of the goal, he used stellar court awareness to pass the ball backwards over his left shoulder to Brockman, who was standing underneath the basket. Berkley, a guard who came off the bench late in the first quarter, finished with a game-high nine rebounds.

The Bruins finally broke a long scoreless streak 23 seconds later when reserve guard Chad Michaels got a putback. On the ensuing possession, Pulaski Academy’s Brandon Brady got a steal out of the Bruins’ press and scored to make it 39-29 with 2:47 left in the third quarter.

Michaels’ bucket with 3:23 left in the third was PA’s first points of the second half, and first since a 1:10 remained in the first half.

After Brady’s initial steal and layup, the Pulaski Academy press failed to be effective. The Bruins usually run a 3-2 zone defense, but in the face of the deficit, it tried full and half-court pressure to get back into the game. Both presses yielded several layups and free throws for Jacksonville.

“That’s certainly not the original game plan when you play Jacksonville,” Pulaski Academy coach Roger Franks said. “But at a certain point you have to try whatever you think gives you the best chance to win the game. I felt like we had to try something else to have a chance to win it, and it just didn’t work. Jacksonville is a very talented team with a very good point guard in No. 4 (Justin McCleary).”

Joyner believes that Pulaski Academy’s unfamiliarity with running a press defense was the reason his team beat it so easily.

“When you’ve face Mills’ press, Jonesboro’s press, McClellan’s press, and then you face a team that’s not used to doing it, it’s not that hard,” Joyner said. “A press depends on everybody moving in unison. If you’re not used to pressing and you’re not moving together like you need to be for a press to be effective, you can beat a press pretty easily, especially when you’ve faced as many teams as we have that press so efficiently.”

Jacksonville again won the rebounding battle 34-24, but trailed 14-13 in that category at halftime.

“We were allowing ourselves to get boxed out,” Joyner said of his team’s first half play. “When the ball is in the air, you have to fight for position. We’re taller than they are, but we were getting outworked in the first half. So we talked about that at halftime and the players responded to that.”

Brockman and Keith Charleston led Jacksonville with 12 points each. McCleary added 10 for the Red Devils. Brady was the only Bruin in double figures with 14 points. Jacksonville was only 33 percent from the floor on 19 of 57 shooting, including an abysmal 3 of 17 (17 percent) from three-point range.

The Bruins (11-7, 7-4) weren’t much better and took far fewer shots. They were 11 of 41 from the floor and 2 of 8 from outside the arc.