JACKSONVILLE – After a disastrous 19-point loss in November to a then-unbeaten Bolles High team that prefaced a three game loss, the Orange Park High Raider basketball team got a jolt Friday night …
JACKSONVILLE – After a disastrous 19-point loss in November to a then-unbeaten Bolles High team that prefaced a three game loss, the Orange Park High Raider basketball team got a jolt Friday night against the same Bolles team, now 12-2, with a hard-fought 40-39 loss in the Bolles gym.
Orange Park senior guard John Abate nearly pulled off the upset in the final seconds with a questionable no-call on a drive to the basket and shot that bounced in and out of the rim with no foul call whistled.
“I should have made the shot,” said Abate. “I think this game showed how much we improved since that first game in our gym.”
Orange Park had just finished off a strong 66-60 win over 9A-Mandarin in the Bernard Wilkes Memorial Tournament at Ribault High just two days prior as the Raiders pushed for some momentum to return to regular season play with just four wins in 11 games.
“If you think about what happened from the beginning of the season when we did not start well, I was playing alongside guys that I had known for about a month,” said Abate. “Now, as the meat of the season approaches, we’ve played together and gotten to know what we are all about. I think our second half of the season will be very different than the first half.”
Orange Park’s deficits in their first half games; except for a 20-point loss to 8A-Oakleaf, have been less than eight points for four games with a district win over Ridgeview in December. Orange Park is the twice defending district 4-6A champion under coach Derek Kurnitsky.
“I’m excited because we hit a little rut in that first half of the season,” said Kurnitsky. “We have had some better practices. I think the young guys are believing in the system. It takes time to mesh and get the chemistry right.”
Against Bolles, the Raiders’ ‘Chuck n Duck’ attack stayed even with the Bulldogs with a 16-16 score after one stanza coming with Orange Park sizzling to a quick 11-4 lead with Abate hitting two threes and a jumper and Diallo Bryant hitting a three off a breakaway on a Kenny Banks rebound and clear pass to guard Kadin Elmore who found Bryant alone in the corner.
Bolles called a timeout to retrieve their breath and slowed the game down with their own shooting prowess to tie the game.
Undaunted, Orange Park kept the proverbial foot on the gas pedal with Abate again getting five points off a baseline slide and a three pointer.
“We want to be the guy with the ball in the clutch,” said Kurnitsky.
Banks was patrolling the paint for Kurnitsky and kept the Bolles drive and dish strategy at bay as Abate continued his hot shooting half with another jumper before Jeremy Verde banked a jumper to end the half with Orange Park still ahead 26-17.
“Banks and D’Marre Craddock definitely help on the defensive end and are becoming more effective in the lane,” said Abate. “We will start pushing them to put some scoring from the lane in the second half of the season.”
Bolles’ outside shooting activated in the third quarter with guard Dave Crouch hitting his first three pointer to ignite the Bulldog bench.
Bolles got another three pointer, from guard Jaxson Crosby, that got the score to 26-23 with 4:53 left in the third and Orange Park not able to penetrate the
Bulldogs’ pace and defense.
“Defensively, we are getting pretty good and that’s what will win championships,” said Kurnitsky. “If you think about our losses, we were ahead in most of them, but lost in the second half. I might just stop talking in the locker room at halftime and just keep them out there to keep the momentum.”
Shakari Austin hit the Raiders’ first bucket of the third just after the four minute mark to put Orange Park up 28-27, but the Raiders could only muster a free throw from Kevin Odom to end the third period tied 29-29.
In the fourth, a blocked shot from Banks highlighted the Raider attack as the score stayed within a point, but with Bolles going up 34-33 at 4:12 to go with an Elmore drive getting the Raiders to within a point.
A missed trap at half court by the Raider defense proved fateful as Crosby escaped and canned another three to put Bolles up 37-33 with 2:18 left in the game.
“I should have said to just tackle him and we will take our chances at the free throw line,” said Kurnitsky. “That is just inexperience.”
After a Raider timeout, Elmore took a breakout rebound the length of the court to punch in layup to get the score to 37-35, but Bolles broke the halfcourt trap a second time in a row to go up 39-35 with both teams still under the seven team foul opportunity for bonus free throws.
“Kadin, John and Diallo are my go-to guys,” said Kurnitsky. “We clean up our shooting and keep with the strong defensive and we have a shot in every game from here out.”
A free throw from Bryant got 36 points for Orange Park and an up and under baseline layup by Abate with a free throw tied the game at 39-39 with 46 seconds to go.
A foul shot put Bolles up, but the Bulldogs also missed on two more to keep the game dicey. On the second free throw, D’Marre Craddock snagged the rebound to put the ball in play from half court with a Raider timeout before Abate missed the final shot of the night.