HAMPTON -- Grace Christian used the press to turn around its TSSAA Class A Sectional game against Hampton and then zoned out the Bulldogs down the stretch.
Other than Cheyenne Camillo, who made six 3-pointers for a team-high 18 points, the Bulldogs struggled from the outside against the Rams’ 1-3-1 zone. The end result was a 71-65 win for Grace on Monday night at Van Huss-White Gymnasium.
“We got good looks,” Hampton head coach Ned Smith said. “If a few of those go down, we’re right in the thick of things. I was proud of the kids. They played hard, accomplished a lot of things like a regional championship and playing a sub-state at home. It’s just the shots didn’t go down tonight.”
The victory resulted in a first state appearance for Grace head coach Matt Mercer as a player or head coach. He did make a previous appearance as an assistant at Fulton, but said there was extra meaning this time around.
“It’s just extra special. My dad passed away three years ago and I praise God for this gift,” said Mercer after his team improved to 24-9. “I know he would be celebrating here with me, so this is a special moment.”
Sophomore Matt Shepherd pounded the inside for 18 points, which tied him with Matt Holland as the high scorer for the Rams. Showing balance, Grace had 14 points from Trey Stewart, 10 points from Tanner Hill and nine from Kolbe Kelley.
“He knows how to manuever around the goal and then he shoots the three well enough where they have to honor it,” Mercer said about Shepherd. “Against the bigger guys, they have to come out and guard him. If they put a guard on him, he can post them up. Every night, he is an advantage for us. He stepped up big and sure didn’t play like a sophomore tonight.”
Hampton (21-15) controlled the action early, out to a 19-7 lead after a basket by Stanley Valentine near the end of the first quarter. However, the Rams started pressing on defense and the faster tempo led to a 14-0 run which allowed pull them ahead. They stayed in front the rest of the way with a 32-26 lead at the half.
It was closely contested early in the third quarter with Grace holding a 42-40 lead before the Rams went on an 11-0 run. Hitting 17 of 28 from the field in the second and third quarters, they held a 55-46 advantage heading into the fourth quarter. Although the Bulldogs threatened to rally, Grace frustrated Hampton with the zone and kept the margin at five points or more throughout the final period.
Senior Wesley Murray ended with 14 points for Hamption, which also got a double-double of 12 points and 14 rebounds from Stanley Valentine. Cody McClain added nine points and six assists.
After the tough loss, Murray took time to reflect on his four years with the Bulldogs.
“We played in four sub-state games,” Murray said. “Although we only won one of them, not many people can say they played in four sub-state games. This year, it’s been a great year. We finished third in the district, but we came back and won the region and we’re really proud of that.
“Our outside shots just weren’t falling tonight and that 1-3-1 was hard to get around. We just tried to do the best we could.”
It was a night when some of the players who don’t get as much of the limelight contributed heavily for the Bulldogs. Besides Camillo, Tyler Chambers had some big plays on the defensive end, as did Tristan Robinson before going out with an ankle injury in the third quarter.
“Cheyenne shot the ball real well,” Smith said. “Tristan made some big plays before he turned his ankle, (Josh) Stout got some big rebounds and Chambers came in there and gave us some great defensive pressure. We played hard. The shots just didn’t go down at the end.”