E.A. Sports Today

Cardinals win big

Even ball mistake at start of game can’t derail Sacred Heart’s express; Goliath wins 43rd straight against in-state 1As

Kevion Nolan slams one home in Sacred Heart’s regional rout of Skyline. (Photo by Greg Warren)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE — It’ll take a lot more than playing with the wrong basketball to throw the Sacred Heart express off the tracks.

The Cardinals had their way with another Class 1A opponent Friday — beating Skyline 98-53 in the Northeast Regional semifinals — but not before the game got off to a balky and somewhat embarrassing start.

The teams played small ball for the first three minutes, opening the game with girls ball that was held at the scorer’s table following the previous Spring Garden win over Cedar Bluff.

The switch to the regular ball was made during Dakota Myers’ second set of free throws in the first quarter. The Cardinals were leading 7-5 at the time — right after Kevion Nolan made his first basket of the game (on his third shot).

Once the change was made, the Cardinals went on a 20-2 run the rest of the quarter and led 41-23 at halftime. It was 75-38 after three quarters.

ASHAA administrators on scene declined to comment on the mixup. The game officials made it a point to check the ball before starting play the second half.

Mistakes happen. The College of Charleston women’s basketball team unknowingly practiced with and played its home games through early February with men’s basketballs.

Sacred Heart starters Nolan and Diante Wood both said they felt the ball was lighter than usual, but otherwise it was inconsequential. Nolan said it didn’t impact his early shooting.

“What’s the philosophy?” Cardinals coach Ralph Graves said. “As long as it’s round. That’s all that matters.”

Skyline coach Ronnie McCarver said his players told him the ball was smaller. He noted they scored better with the small ball in play – “I was hoping they’d leave it in there,” he joked — but he was perturbed they had to stop the game to make the change.

Regardless of which ball was played, all five Sacred Heart starters scored in double figures. Wood led the way with 22 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots. Nolan, Dakota Myers and D.J. Heath scored 17 each. Murdock Simmons had 11.

Nolan also had 12 rebounds, five assists and six steals. Heath had seven assists. Nolan was being watched in the game by one of his future Samford coaches; Heath was being watched by Tennessee.

The Cardinals are living proof that it’s possible to be David AND Goliath at the same time.

The Cardinals are the Goliath of their world, a giant in the smallest AHSAA classification, ultra-prosperous in basketball riches and living life to the fullest in their promised land. At the same time, they’re not afraid to be David-like, challenging – and slaying — the giants residing in the larger territories.

While the conversation about the Cardinals the last two years has been dominated by complaints and snide comments about where their players come from (by and large Anniston) and the alleged lengths they go to get them, it should be noted the state has uncovered no wrongdoing in the program, yet they continue to be vilified by the haters their success has attracted.

“Don’t hate our glory if you don’t know our story,” Graves said after last year’s regional opener when the questions were raised publicly.

There is no question about what this team has done between the lines.

They are the dominant program in Class 1A, a Goliath that has won two straight state championships, are favored to win a third, are no match to the teams they have to play in their area, and haven’t lost to a 1A team in Alabama since the state semifinals three years ago.

The winning streak against in-state Class 1As is now at 43; the average margin of victory going in for those games was 38.5 points – and 1As are all that remain on their schedule this year. Only four of those games have been decided by fewer than 20 points, and two of those have come in the Final Four.

(The average margin of victory in their 1A streak is about the same as the UConn women on its 100-game winning streak.)

“We don’t care anything about that; we haven’t even been keeping up with the stats,” Graves said. “We don’t keep up with the stats, we’re just trying to win the game every time we go out. If that’s who we have to play against, that’s who we’re going to play against. That’s just the way we’re going to go about our business.

“I’m just proud of our kids for doing what they’re asked to do and doing what they’re supposed to do. They don’t play down to competition; they don’t play up to competition. They play at their level, at their standard, and that’s what it’s all about.”

As the David, they have no fear going against bigger programs and have slain a bunch of them. They’ve taken down the two biggest basketball giants in their own backyard, Anniston and Oxford, about as much as the two county giants have gotten them. They swept 7A Gadsden City this year and beat four of the biggest schools in the state last year.

There were expectations of them taking down a few more this year, but half their roster got suspended for what became six games for leaving the bench area in during a game in December. The suspensions ruined a much-anticipated matchup with Mountain Brook and lessened the field in the Magic City Invitational, further galvanizing the us-against-them “all we got, all we need” mindset.

“I think we could play with any team in any classification, it just so happens we’re in Class 1A and you have to play where you’re at,” Graves said.

This Northeast Region the Cardinals have to come to is the most decorated in the 1A tournament, with three of the state’s top five and four of the top 10 Class 1A teams, but they are the team everyone fears.

The gap between these teams is as wide as the part in the Red Sea. Sacred Heart has all the weapons and is skilled as Navy Seals, while the other three are comparatively just coming out of boot camp.

McCarver acknowledged the Cardinals were the best team of all the playoffs opponents he’s coached against “by far.”

“They’re playing in a league where they shouldn’t be playing in,” he said. “What good’s it do them? They’re going to beat everybody that same way. It’s not doing those kids any good at all. … I don’t know if there’s any team down here 1 through 7A that could beat them.”

Sacred Heart 98, Skyline 53
SKYLINE (25-6) –
Zachary Sims 3-12 2-2 9, Bryson Woodall 4-11 0-0 8, Jonah Putman 3-8 0-2 7, Austin Wade 1-5 0-0 2, Bradley Rodgers 1-5 0-0 2, Nathan Berninger 2-6 0-0 5, Hunter Prince 2-7 1-2 7, Troy Saint 3-7 2-2 10, Landon McCallister 0-1 0-0 0, Trenton Wilson 0-1 0-0 0, Garrison Woodall 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 20-66 5-8 53.

SACRED HEART (25-8) – Diante Wood 10-14 2-3 22, Murdock Simmons 4-8 2-2 11, D.J. Heath 6-13 4-5 17, Dakota Myers 5-9 6-7 17, Kevion Nolan 8-17 0-0 17, Jaylin Croft 1-1 0-0 3, Caleb LaFollette 0-2 0-0 0, Layton Cheatwood 0-1 0-0 0, Stephen Stansil 1-4 2-2 4, JonRiley Miller 0-0 0-0 0, Khalil Watkins 3-4 0-0 7, Augustus Marion 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 38-73 16-19 98.

Skyline 7 16 15 15 — 53
Sacred Heart 27 14 34 23 — 98

3-point goals: Skyline 8-26 (Sims 1-8, Woodall 0-1, Putman 1-3, Berninger 1-3, Prince 2-2, Saint 2-4, McAllister 0-1, Wilson 0-1, Woodall 1-3); Sacred Heart 6-26 (Wood 0-2, Simmons 1-3, Heath 1-4, Myers 1-3, Nolan 1-6, Croft 1-1, LaFollette 0-2, Cheatwood 0-1, Stansil 0-2, Watkins 1-2). Rebounds: Skyline 34 (Rodgers 7, Sims 6); Sacred Heart 51 (Wood 15, Nolan 12, Myers 9). Total fouls: Skyline 14, Sacred Heart 12. Officials: Allen Cone, David Hill, Marvin Wesley.

(Cover photo by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

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