North Oconee’s boys basketball team was on fire entering this week.
The Titans beat Chestatee High School last Friday 94-49. The win improved their overall record to 11-2 and gave them a 2-1 mark in Region 8-AAAA.
It also gave North Oconee four-straight victories heading into this week’s games.
“It's a good time of year to be rolling,” Titans coach Rick Rasmussen said. “Obviously, we don't want to peak too early but I think they're hungry because we're in the region and we know that every region win is equal in the region standings, so they're all important. We're just trying to make a statement. We're just trying to make sure we don't take anybody lightly.”
That proved true last Friday.
Chestatee entered on a five-game losing streak and with just three wins on the season. Yet, North Oconee expected a tough challenge.
It got one early.
The War Eagles kept pace with the Titans throughout the first quarter. They had North Oconee’s lead at just 17-15 at one point.
A 3-pointer by Cole Kelly pushed North Oconee to a 5-point cushion just before the buzzer sounded to end the period.
It did not take long for North Oconee to blow open the game once the second quarter commenced.
The Titans’ offense kept scoring at a high rate and their defense snuffed out Chestatee. By the time the War Eagles signaled for a timeout at the 5:28 mark of the second, they were down 32-18.
“They were playing up-tempo and I was like, ‘Well, if they want to run with us, let's do it,’” Rasmussen said. “I think we've got the advantage in the guard play and I think that's what showed [Friday]. We were just super fast in transition and our guards got in the passing lanes and tipped it out and they were gone.”
Fast-break opportunities enabled North Oconee’s scoring run.
Those chances were generated by steals. Rasmussen pointed to Justin Byrd as having a particularly strong game in that category.
The Titans didn’t let up their defensive attack.
They were up 49-25 at halftime before taking a 77-41 lead by the end of the third period. Even though the fourth quarter was shortened by two minutes thanks to their big lead, the Titans scored 17 more points in the fourth.
“We kept the pressure on them,” Jace Saxton said. “Our guards are a little bit stronger than their guards and we just kept pounding and pounding. We didn't stop. It's hard to score when you've got a guy in your face.”
Saxton’s scoring effort alone could have beaten Chestatee.
The senior dropped 54 points – setting a new program record – which helped him eclipse 1,000 career points.
Fellow senior Dylan Garrington said he and his teammates recognized Saxton’s hot hand early in the contest. That’s why they kept feeding him the ball throughout the game.
“When you have someone who's going for 54, it's kind of hard for a team to stop them,” Garrington said. “It clears up a lot of stuff. I just knew once he got going that we needed to keep getting him the ball.”
Though Saxton was the standout performer last Friday, the whole Titans team is playing at a high level.
During the game against Chestatee, Garrington poured in 10 points, as did Byrd. Kelly finished with 7 points. Thomas Clausen and Justin Payne each scored 3 points while Seth Jones, Wilson Sibley and Brodie Scott had 2 point apiece. Walker Hendrix contributed 1 point on a successful free throw attempt.
“We're all playing very well,” Saxton said. “Everyone's really coming together. We grind the ball on offense, we play tough defense. When you play like that, it's hard to beat a team who's going like we were [Friday].”
Rasmussen said his team must remain humble and keep working toward its goals with region play heating up.
Additionally, Garrington said need to work on setting up plays and limiting other teams’ offensive rebounds.
For now, though, the Titans are enjoying their recent wave of success.
“We've got a lot of confidence,” Garrington said. “Our guys play with a chip on their shoulder. We're not the biggest team, we're not the fastest team, we're not the strongest team but I think we play our roles and we do that extremely well. When you have a team that feeds off each other and doesn't care who's hitting shots and who's putting the ball in the hoop and doing what they need to do, that works out really well.”