Patriots pull away from Canes

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For long stretches Friday, Sandy Creek didn't play like the second-ranked team in Class 4A.

But there were enough quick spurts, during which the Patriots showcased their high-end talent, for Sandy Creek to eventually pull away for a 76-69 Region 5-AAAA win over Cartersville inside The Storm Center.

"They capitalized on our turnovers," Canes head coach Mike Tobin said. "Our turnovers killed us. They go on those 6-0, 8-0 runs. Last year, we played them tough. We're down two points, and next thing you know, we're down 20 in like a minute and a half."

While there was no 25-0 run like the Patriots (12-3, 3-0) managed to blow open last season's meeting in Bartow County, the sheer number of quick bursts proved decisive. There were 8-0 runs in the first and fourth quarters, as well as a pair of demoralizing 6-0 spurts in the third period.

One of the 6-0 runs came immediately after the Canes (5-7, 1-3) had tied the game at 38-apiece. The other turned a 46-43 Sandy Creek lead in the final moments of the period into a nine-point deficit for Cartersville entering the fourth quarter.

The latter run was eerily similar to one the Patriots had in last year's matchup on the same court. In that instance, an individual 5-0 run by T.J. Bickerstaff turned a one-point lead into a six-point advantage.

Bickerstaff is playing at Drexel now, but Sandy Creek has plenty of talent still on the roster. Daryl Rice hit the back-to-back 3-pointers for the game-changing run late in the third quarter, but Jabari Smith carried the Patriots, scoring 31 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter to ward off any Canes comeback.

Smith's performance didn't come as a surprise. Ranked the No. 5 player in the country in the Class of 2021, the junior's immense ability has led to offers from teams like Alabama, Florida State, Georgia and Georgia Tech.

"Bottom line is that Smith is a stud," Tobin said. "... He's impossible to stop. You put two guys on him, and he just shoots over the top. He's got such a soft shot. That was a huge difference, obviously."

Part of the reason Cartersville hung around as long as it did was that Kolbe Benham was nearly matching Smith shot for shot. The junior had at least one trey in every quarter. He really exploded in the final period, knocking down three shots from deep and scoring 15 of his 28 points in the stanza.

"He kept us in the game," Tobin said of Benham. "What I was most pleased about with Kolbe was late in the game, when a shot went up and he just drove No. 10 [Smith] back. He got the foul called on him, and Kolbe was able to shoot free throws.

"That's the thing I was pleased with more than him scoring those points. For us to win, we have to do a much better job boxing out. ... If we get that concept under our belts, we're going to be pretty doggone good."

Buoyed by the first of their vital runs, Sandy Creek built a 15-10 lead by the end of the first quarter. Both teams played to a second-quarter stalemate, despite 10 points from Smith, as the Patriots held a 30-25 edge at halftime.

Four different Canes drilled 3s in the third quarter, allowing the hosts to momentarily take a 36-35 lead. Cartersville recovered from the first 6-0 spurt of the period to narrow the deficit to one possession, but the second 6-0 run, which turned into a 9-0 after Sandy Creek scored the first three points of the fourth quarter, ended up being too much to overcome.

"I was absolutely pleased with our effort, kids played hard," Tobin said. "... Before the season, a lot of people were picking them to win the state championship. That's how good they are, and I feel like we're right there."

The Canes have no time to sulk about the loss, because things don't get much easier. Cartersville will host No. 5 Chapel Hill at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in a game moved up six hours due to the threat of severe weather later in the evening.

"Hoping we have the same effort, but the team coming in here [Saturday] is rock solid too, they're in the top 10," Tobin said of the Panthers. "I felt like we got better [Friday], even though we didn't win. I'm hoping [Saturday] we continue to play hard and take care of the ball a little bit better."