By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
The anticipation rose Saturday night in the Goodwin Gymnasium as the St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes boys basketball team began to charge late in the third quarter against Trinity Episcopal.
In the final of the traditional season-opening Sleepy Thompson Tournament in their home gym, the Saints’ offense came to life and for a time looked like they might surge to an improbable victory. With an up-tempo offense causing problems for the Titans, the home team went on a 22-13 run, and brought the deficit down to as little as five points.
But it was not enough, as Trinity Episcopal limited the damage and held off the charge to triumph 60-50 and win the tournament. The Saints’ wait for an overall victory in their home tourney stretches back to 2006, but their late-game showing gave head coach Ronald Ginyard great encouragement.
“I always believe it comes down to defense and defensive intensity,” he said. “Our guys really started to buy in again to the way that we defend. We guard the ball well, we helped each other guard the ball well, we rotated well, we boxed out and we rebounded.
“Then we moved the ball and shared the ball offensively. When you do that, you elevate your level of energy, and when your energy is as high as it was in the third and fourth quarter, you’re always going to have a chance to win.”
The third-quarter surge came in response to a Titans offense that kicked into high gear during the second quarter and kept up the momentum until midway through the third. Led by eventual tournament MVP Zachary Jacobs, Armondo Bacot and Jason Wade on the offensive end, Trinity stretched its lead to as many as 19 points, silencing a raucous Saints crowd.
Bacot and Jacobs each finished the game with 16 points, while Wade added 11. And with the score at 47-28 in favor of the visitors in the third, SSSAS was facing the prospect of a blowout.
But after a made free throw and a lay-up by sophomore Ephraim Reed, Charles Thompson and Denmark Slay both made buckets to end the third quarter with the Saints down 47-35.
Domenick Bailey and Xavier Lipscomb joined the scoring party early in the fourth, and when Lipscomb hit two three-pointers, the Saints extended the run to 17-3 and only trailed by five points, 50-45.
But Jacobs helped Trinity Episcopal keep the hosts at arm’s length as he scored 6 of the Titans’ last 10 points and grabbed three rebounds. It was enough for the visitors to stay in front and re-establish a final victory margin of 10 points.
Bailey led all Saints with 15 points, including a clip of 7 of 11 from the free-throw line. Slay added 11 points, while Thompson had 8. Both Bailey and Slay were named to the all-tournament team at the end of the final, while the Saints won the tourney’s sportsmanship award and Ginyard was named best coach.
The hosts were left to lament a disappointing first half, something Ginyard said was a result of the pressure from playing in a full gym, which his team attributed to being something the mostly sophomores and only four seniors were not used to.
But with more exposure to those situations and the growth of team bonds, the Saints head coach said his players would become more adept.
“So many of our guys are young and they’ve never had this type of environment before at this level of play,” Ginyard said.“So a lot of it has to do with experience, but also a lot of it has to do with the type of kid that’s here in our program. They really believe in what we’re trying to accomplish and they believe in our culture.
“When you believe in that and you can lean on the guy who’s to your left and you lean on the guy who’s to your right, it’s a lot easier to deal with that madness.”
The appearance in the final capped a memorable run for the Saints, who beat Good Counsel 67-46 and National Christian Academy 67-50 in their previous two games in the 61st edition of the Sleepy Thompson tournament.
“When we moved Sleepy to December, I was thrilled because it’s such an intense environment and it’s great to start your season with those three games,” Ginyard said. “We’re going to learn a lot about our team, we already learned a lot about our team this week- end and this is really going to be our foundation as we go through the rest of the year.”
The Saints entered the 2016-2017 season on the back of a one-point defeat to Episcopal in the Interstate Athletic Conference tournament final last season and an appearance in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state semifinals.
Ginyard said more than anything, he hopes his players focus on the team-first ethos of the program, something he said was missing at times last year despite the team’s successes.
“Right now, our culture is in a really good place,” he said. “Even though our team had so much success last year, I think I’m going to enjoy coaching this team more because I don’t feel like we’re going to battle over culture. We’re just going to battle over helping our kids get better, and that’s really what it should be about.”