CLEVES — The Fayetteville Rockets took the court in game action for the first time in nearly two weeks on Tuesday night in the sectional semifinals against Gamble Montessori.
In a close battle that wasn’t decided until late in the fourth quarter, the Rockets emerged victorious, advancing to the sectional championship with a 56-48 victory.
Both teams got off to a hot start in the first quarter. The Gators jumped out to a 10-4 lead less than four minutes into the contest. Timmy Crone converted a three-point play that sparked a 7-0 Rocket run, putting Fayetteville up by one.
Max Lanham hit a three-pointer with just over six seconds left in the quarter to tie the game at 16, but Gamble Montessori got a buzzer-beating basket from Elijah Allen to give the Gators an 18-16 lead at the end of the first.
Fayetteville head coach Darryl Iles said the team expected to run the ball early in the game, also noting the team would have to handle the Gators’ pressure on defense.
“We got up and down,” Iles said. “We knew they’d be really aggressive in the first three or four minutes, they were going to play really hard. We had to handle their pressure, take care of the ball and run our sets.”
Anfernee Lipscomb hit a pair of three-pointers in the second quarter for Gamble Montessori, but Fayetteville used an 8-0 run to pull ahead 28-20. The Gators answered with an 8-0 run of their own and led 31-30 with less than a minute remaining. Lanham was fouled on a three-pointer with six-tenths of a second left in the half, and he converted all three attempts to keep the Rockets ahead 33-31 at the break.
The Rockets struggled at times in the first half with turnovers. The team would turn the ball over 21 times in the game, but Iles said after a talk at halftime about ball security the team cut down on that number in the second half.
“We told them at halftime, it was just unnecessary,” Iles said. “Take care of the basketball. If we have the break, we want to throw it up the floor but let’s take care of the ball better in the second half. I think we did, for the most part.”
Neither team did much offensively in the third quarter, with the Gators out-scoring the Rockets 10-8. That allowed the game to enter the final stanza tied at 41.
Fayetteville started the fourth quarter on an 8-1 run, with Lanham supplying all eight points. He hit a pair of three-pointers and drained another basket to put his team ahead for good. Iles said he and the Rocket coaching staff have been trying to get Lanham to take more shots.
“I’ve been telling him all year, when you’re open you have to shoot,” Iles said. “It’s been a struggle, I don’t know why. If a coach told me to shoot it, I’m going to shoot it every game. If you’re open, you have to shoot it. You’ve got to let it fly every time you’re open.”
Gamble Montessori pulled as close as five points, but the Rockets hit free-throws late to maintain the lead. The Rockets withstood a barrage of three-point attempts throughout the game, especially in the fourth quarter. The Gators hit eight three-point shots in the game, four in each half. Iles said the team expected them to attack from the arc.
“We scouted them and watched them three or four times, and that’s what they did,” Iles said. “We said they were going to make some early, but when their legs start to wear out we have to rebound and we have to run a bit.”
Lanham led all scorers with 16 points. Max Iles scored 10 while Crone and Nic Ball added six each. In addition to his point total, Crone grabbed four rebounds, tallied two assists and routinely found himself fighting for points in the paint. Iles said he told Crone going into the game he would have to battle.
“Timmy did his role really well,” Iles said. “I said you have to rebound and battle, and he had one of his best games. He’s a senior, he didn’t want it to be over.”
Cole Schaefer scored six points in the game and pulled down nine rebounds. Iles said Shaefer’s work doesn’t always put him in the spotlight, but he always plays hard.
“He’s taken 78 charges in his career,” Iles said. “He rebounds…he just plays both ends and he plays hard.”
The Rockets advance to the sectional final on Saturday, Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. They will return to Taylor High School to face Middletown Christian, a team they lost to 72-62 on the road in early January.
“We didn’t play very well,” Iles said. “They shot the ball at home very well. It’ll be a good game, it’ll probably come down to the end and whoever can withstand and make free-throws at the end.”