They could’ve quit.
They could have packed their bags and coasted into the spring and forgot they ever played the game — but they didn’t. The Indian River varsity boy’s basketball team fought back from a 15 point first-half deficit to cut it to two with only 1:30 left in the game, only to lose in the end 72-65, ending their playoff hopes.
Indian River was forced to turn to their seldom-used bench when freshman center Jeremy Purnell and senior guard Jeremy Sturgis fouled out of the game. Senior guard Malcolm West, junior guard Stephon Phillips and senior center Vincent Handy all were key contributors in Indian River’s red-hot scoring run.
“We’re a team of scrappers, and I told them before the game that if we get behind ... we can always come back,” said head coach Pat Kelly.
Indian River shot the three-ball often and effectively in the second half as they slowly, but surely trimmed Howard’s lead. Senior guard Larry Bailey was 3-3 from three-point land to score nine of his 23 team-high points. Indian River hit 5-10 of their three-pointers, compared to only two three-pointers for Howard.
Junior forward Travis Irving was second on the team with 11 points, three rebounds, three steals and four assists. Senior point guard Therman Hagans put on a defensive show — hustling like Melvin Flynt to score nine points, grab four key steals, and two tough rebounds when it counted most.
“Therman played his best game of the year defensively, and our guys fed of that emotion — which is what we wanted,” said Kelly.
The energy in the gym Wednesday night was electric. The players fed off the intensity from the crowd, teammate’s big plays and raw emotion. At one point the home crowd ferociously booed the opposing team’s cheerleaders when they took center court. The crowd completely drowned out the boisterous cheerleading squad of the visitors — nullifying Howard’s rally cheer.
Howard made up ground easily though, and were able to shred the Indians inside the paint. Howard scored 42 of their points inside the paint and was able to get second chance points because of poor position by Indian River.
“We were outsized by a good team. We have a good young center, but basically our team is a bunch of 5’7” guys. Howard’s shooting guard was 6’4,”” said Kelly.
The Indians had ample opportunities to capitalize on Howard mistakes. Howard quickly accumulated 10 fouls, putting Indian River in the penalty bonus with more than three minutes left in the game. The Indians attempted to drive the lane to draw contact but not enough. Down 63-59 with two minutes remaining, the Indians failed to penetrate the lane to draw the fouls and get to the free-throw line.
Indian River finished their season with a 14-8 record, but a clear vision of how they are capable of playing.
“We were hoping to advance in the playoffs, but we came close against a good team who has beaten some very good teams in the state,” said Kelly. “We showed that we can compete with some of the best in the state.”
Indian River finished second only to Smyrna in the Southern Henlopen conference this year and look to improve their standing in the league.
Indian River will return Irving and Purnell, but will look to the junior varsity team for players, as well as undiscovered talent that haven’t tried out for the team yet.