Columbus High School senior guard RJ DeLoach calls out a play Saturday in his team’s 64-37 victory against New Hope in the final game of the 21st-annual Joe Horne Christmas Classic. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
December 18, 2017 10:09:12 AM
Casey Smith and RJ DeLoach are feeling more comfortable every day for the Columbus High School boys basketball team.
That could spell bad news for opponents of the Falcons the remainder of the 2017-18 season.
Smith had 15 points and DeLoach added nine Saturday night in a balanced effort to lead Columbus to a 64-37 victory against New Hope in the final game of the 21st-annual Joe Horne Christmas Classic at Columbus High.
The two-day event closed in front of a sold-out crowd at the Falcons' Nest. Unfortunately, the game didn't live up to the hype, as Columbus (7-3) rallied from a 6-0 deficit in the first two-plus minutes to lead 16-15 after one quarter. The Falcons pulled away from there thanks to a balanced scoring effort that saw senior Robert Woodard II score a game-high 17 points and classmate Denijay Harris add 16.
Tyler Stevenson led New Hope (5-4) with 14 points. Andrew Junkin added 10.
New Hope coach Drew McBrayer said Columbus' length on defense affected his team.
"We didn't do a very good job defensively tonight and we let their length bother us offensively," McBrayer said. "They went to a zone shortly after (the 6-0 start) and we just struggled making shots. They kind of collapsed on the post and took our inside game away and we didn't make enough shots."
McBrayer said he will continue to impress the importance of playing tough defense so the Trojans can stay in games on nights when they don't shoot the ball well. Unfortunately, he said the Trojans didn't deliver that kind of effort.
"They pretty much did whatever they wanted on us," McBrayer said.
McBrayer said Columbus' balance makes it such a tough team to handle. He said teams are going to look to Woodard II, a Mississippi State signee, and Harris as two key ingredients, but he said players like Smith, DeLoach, Greg King, and Aaron Johnson give coach Anthony Carlyle options on the perimeter so the Falcons can spread the floor. McBrayer also said the Falcons can use that depth and athleticism on defense to get into passing lanes and to disrupt an opponent's rhythm, which he felt played a key role in the outcome.
"You worry so much about Robert and Denijay attacking the lane that Casey, RJ, and the Johnson kid all shoot the ball well," McBrayer said. "Then you really have to close out hard on them or they are going to make jump shots, like Casey did in the first quarter. We come out with the lead and back-to-back possessions he hit shots that kind of got their momentum going. They're tough to guard, but we have to do a better job of that."
Smith said the intensity of the "rivalry" game against the Class 4A school from Lowndes County added to the excitement to the matchup, which started approximately 40 minutes after the scheduled 8:30 p.m. start time. Smith hit two shots from the left wing, including one 3-pointer, that helped the Falcons come to life.
"We are coming along," said Smith, a transfer from West Lowndes High. "We are getting better and the chemistry is getting better at practice. We are getting in the flow with everybody and we are learning our spots."
DeLoach provided more fuel to the fire in the second quarter with a steal off a deflection and a layup. He added another layup off a steal by King as the Falcons grew more active in their half-court defense.
"The hardest part is not to try to do too much," DeLoach said. "You have to play your role, stay within the game, and let the game come to you, especially in a rival game.
"Coach didn't know if I was going to play because I missed two or three days of practice. Normally, I guard the best player on the other team, but coach Carlyle gave me a break on that tonight because of my sickness. I had to fill in for Denijay's role, which was attacking the boards and getting easy layups and doing what I can for the team."
Columbus was equally energized on the offensive glass. Harris had two putbacks in the second quarter and Woodard II had one score off an offensive rebound and another on an offensive rebound tip. A 3-pointer by Woodard II off an assist from Harris and a dunk by Woodard II off an assist from Smith helped extend the lead to 37-22 at halftime.
Carlyle agreed when asked if he thought Smith and DeLoach, who was coming off a bout with the flu that forced him to miss practice earlier in the week, looked comfortable.
"Every game we play is an opportunity to get experience," Carlyle said. "The tough schedule we have played paid dividends tonight. We are still building. We have some things we have to correct, but we are showing growth in other areas."
Carlyle liked the signs he saw from his players on defense. He also acknowledged there are things the Falcons have to clean up because his goal is to play into the first week of March and contend for a state title. With Smith and DeLoach continuing to settle in, Carlyle feels good about the potential of his team.
"I have dealt with it in the past when we have had kids that might have come from a smaller school or a private school," Carlyle said. "You just have to be patient with them so they can get experience and learn and develop."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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