Flyer’s Finish National Tournament with a Flourish

Photo By: Donna Ford
Photo By: Donna Ford

Sandhills Community College completed its impressive late season run of success against ranked opponents by upsetting No. 1 Suffolk County CC 87-78 in the fifth place game of the NJCAA Division III Men's Basketball Championship on Saturday in Rochester, MN.

Led by Donnie Haith with 26 points and 10 rebounds, the Flyers overcame an early nine-point deficit and went on to build as much as an 11-point lead in the second half against the squad from Long Island. Chase Morrisette-Barnett scored 16 points and tied teammate Casey Clarkson with a team-high five assists.

Also scoring in double-figures off the bench were Holt Walker with 13 and Casey Clarkson with 10. Sayaun  Dent was a big contributor with nine points and 10 rebounds.Calvin Ahoume was credited with five blocked shots as the Flyers turned away a season-high 10 attempts.

Coach Mike Apple's squad completed the season with a record of 25-9. The Flyers defeated No. 10 ranked Prince George's CC to win the District 7 tournament, and No. 6 seeded Middlesex County on Friday. Suffolk County, the No. 1 seed, came into the tournament with a record of 28-0 before losing two of three games.

"I would really like to play Herkimer (a 72-60 winner over Rock Valley (IL) later Saturday for the national title) again, especially the first half," the coach said - thinking back to the tournament opener on Thursday when his team trailed by 18 at the intermission before outscoring the No.2 ranked Generals 42-36 the rest of the way. "I really think as far as Division III level basketball teams in junior college, Sandhills is one of the best teams in the nation right this second."

Sharks Sharp at the Start – Flyers Adjust

A winner by 35 points in its game on Friday, Suffolk picked apart the Flyer defense for easy baskets on the way to an early 20-11 lead. Then Holt Walker and Casey Clarkson came off the bench to score all of the points in a 9-2 run that helped change the complexion of the game.

Apple also made a defensive adjustment to try to contain guard Steven Tynes who was directing the Sharks' offense and went on to finish with 17 points and a dozen assists.

"The No.1 team in the nation jumped on us early and looked awesome," the coach said. "No. 10 for them is a super basketball player. I felt if we kept showing him the same thing over and over he would keep picking us apart.

"We had to battle back. As the game got longer, we got better."

Apple felt the switch to a zone defense with Delton Davis and Tyrell Allmond coming off the bench to provide quickness helped take the Sharks out of their comfort zone. The Flyers took their first lead since the opening basket of the game at 30-28 on a put-back by Dent with 4:47 remaining in the half.

Haith Spree Helps Turn Tide

The lead changed hands four times before the Sharks took a 39-38 lead into the intermission. They scored the first four points of the second, before Haith was fouled making a corner three and turned it into a four-point play.

Another trey by Haith, and two baskets by Damauri Sexton, added to a 14-5 run that gave the Flyers a 52-48 lead at the 14:23 mark. The pace of play was now to their liking. When Haith scored again off a pass from Allmond, for his 16th and 17th points of the half, it became 69-60 with eight minutes remaining in the game.

"Donnie made some clutch shots," the coach said. "I can't say enough about Donnie and Chase and how good of basketball players they are."

Flyers Finish the Job

Each time the Sharks showed designs of a rally, the Flyers had an answer. When the margin was cut to two at the 6:40 mark, Dent drained a shot from the side. It was 72-69 moments later when baskets by Haith, Morrisette-Barnett, and Dent again, made it 80-69 with just over three minutes remaining in the game. Their final seven Flyer points came at the charity stripe.

Earlier, Apple and assistant coaches Scott Bender and Josh Smith were a bit concerned about the teams less than stellar display of shooting during warm-ups. But the Flyers found the range in a big way making 15 of their 23 shots from the field in the second half (65.2 per cent) and 30-for-56 (54.4 per cent) overall. He also felt his team played well defensively throughout the tournament.

"That's pretty good," he said of his team's second half marksmanship against Suffolk. "I'll take that."

Tournament Sidelights

Capping an outstanding career with the Flyers, Haith learned later he was one of eight players named to the all-tournament team. The Flyers faced four of the others including Tynes, MVP Derrick Felder and Mousa Pough of Herkimer, and Letrell West of Middlesex.

Afterward, Haith, like his coach, was still thinking about what might have been had the Flyers started better against Herkimer on Thursday.

"I felt like we could run against any team in the tournament," he said. "I feel our team was good enough to win the whole thing. Herkimer didn't beat us, we beat ourselves."

Morrisette-Barnett liked the way the team fought and persevered down the stretch of the season, beginning with the District 7 title game against Prince George's when they trailed by as many  as 14 points and got contributions from the deepest bench of any team they faced. Against Suffolk, 31 points were scored by non-starters.

"They had the same energy we had and we didn't lose any momentum when they were in there," he said. "It's a great feeling that we could beat the No. 1 team in the nation and could have won the whole tournament."

The win was particularly sweet for Clarkson who was one of an unusual number of Flyer players who missed games because of injury throughout the season. He was a spark in the last two games totaling 18 points on 4-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc. He was also a vocal leader on and off the floor.

"I was able to come in early in games and help a lot," he said. "I tried to focus on being the best leader I could be. We went through a lot of adversity this year and one of my biggest things was making sure everybody was level-headed."

Including a 3-0 record in the 2012 National Championship season, 1-2 in 2015 (7th place), the Flyers are now a combined 6-3 in three tournament appearances.



Sandhills - Morrisette-Barnett 5 6-6 16, Haith 10 3-6 26, Smith 0 0-0 0, Dent 2 5-6 9, Ahoume 1 1-2 3, Clarkson 3 2-4 10, Ratliff 0 0-0 0, Sexton 2 0-0 4, Bryan 0 0-0 0, Allmond 1 0-0 2, D. Davis 1 0-0 2, Williams 0 0-0 0, Walker 5 1-5 13 Totals 30 18-29 87. Suffolk - Bookhart 1 0-0 2, Tynes 6 5-8 17, Grimsley 8 2-4 18, Graziano 5 0-0 12, Signer 4 1-1 9, Noak 1 0-0 2, Agostino 2 0-0 6, Stevensen 5 1-1 11 Totals 32 9-14 78. Three-point goals: SCC 7 (Haith 3, Clarkson 2, Walker 2); SCCC 5 (Graziano 2, Agostino 2, Bookhart).