In a battle of top-10 teams, hustle plays and free throws often make the difference on the scoreboard. It also doesn’t hurt to have Jaylon Pugh on your side.
The Cartersville boys held an edge in both areas, while Pugh poured in 25 points to earn a hard-fought 62-58 victory over Sandy Creek on Tuesday at the Storm Center.
“We play them again, and we’ll more than likely play them a third time in the region tournament,” Canes coach Mike Tobin said. “They’re an outstanding team, and I think we’re an outstanding team. ...
“The win is huge. It puts us in sole possession of first place. It’s so nice to be able to control your own destiny and not have to worry about other teams beating each other to help us out. Our goal is to get the No. 1 or 2 seeds to get the bye into the [region tournament] semis, which gets us an automatic berth in the state tournament.”
With arguably the top teams in Region 5-AAAA on the court, No. 3 Sandy Creek (11-4, 2-1) looked set to run away early after jumping out to a huge 13-3 lead. As they have done recently, ninth-ranked Cartersville (11-2, 4-0) battled back to pull within one point at 17-16 entering the second quarter, thanks in part to seven points from Pugh.
The Canes dominated much of the second period to take a 30-26 edge into the locker room. However, the Patriots put up 21 points in the third quarter, stretching its lead to seven at one point. Similar to Saturday’s road win over LaGrange when it outscored the Grangers, 20-9, in the final period, Cartersville outscored the Patriots by a 20-11 margin over the final eight minutes to grab the win.
“If I played against us, I’d never feel like a lead is safe,” Tobin said. “... Our guys are going to fight. And as a coach, you love that.”
After missing their first seven free throws of the game over the course of the first three quarters, the Canes sank 8-of-11 in the fourth quarter. Sandy Creek, meanwhile, only attempted four foul shots in the entire game, making three.
“In a game like this, you miss one of two free throws and it could cost you,” Tobin said.
One of the biggest plays in the fourth quarter came off one of Cartersville’s missed free throws. In a critical hustle play that changed the game, Isaac Gridley rebounded Pugh’s missed free throw. The possession ended with Pugh converting an and-1 layup.
Pugh, a Furman commit, splashed home three triples in the game, which always seemed to come when the Patriots appeared to be pulling away.
After struggling with his outside shot through much of the early part of the season, Pugh has caught fire from 3-point land recently.
“The thing with Jaylon is that other teams, their main focus is trying to stop him,” Tobin said. “We did a good job of posting him up and getting him some good looks. That’s the thing about Jaylon, he can play inside [or] outside.
“He’s always been able to shoot it, but it’s tough on him or anybody else when other teams are focused on stopping you.”
In the fourth quarter, Pugh had eight points and T.J. Horton added six of his 16.
Pugh’s most clutch shots came from the line in the closing minutes. His two freebies with 11.7 seconds made it a two-possession game after Jarred Godfrey, who finished with a game-high 28 points, had knocked down his fourth 3-pointer of the game to pull Sandy Creek within 60-58.
But it was another hustle play by Gridley, tipping a late in-bounds pass that fittingly helped seal the win.
Throughout the game, Cartersville just made a few plays here and there that seemed indicative of a team that just wanted it more. Grant Harris pulled down some tough offensive rebounds. Perignon Dyer took a massive charge against Godfrey on a layup that would have given the Patriots the lead. And JKobe Orr flew around the court after getting another chance to start.
It’s just one reason why Tobin sees no letdown coming when Cartersville hosts Chapel Hill on Friday.
“Absolutely not,” Tobin said when asked if he’s worried about one. “These guys know we played Chapel Hill last year to get into the state tournament, and we barely beat them. And that was here. So we talked about it after the game that we need to be ready to go Friday.
“I think these guys are going to play hard no matter who we’re playing.”