ORANGE PARK – Orange Park High’s Raider Dome has become a palace of energy under the tutelage of Raiders’ basketball coach Derek Kurnitsky and the energy of the ‘Dome got a 10 point lead for the Raiders over Class 8A’s third-ranked Fleming Island High in Friday’s rivalry clash.
From there, though, it was Fleming Island High guard Sebastian Astor, with his 20 points and seven steals, who stole the energy and pushed his Eagles to a 35-20 second half en route to a 58-53 non-district win in the season finale for both teams. District tournaments were set to open on Mon., Feb. 11.
“We knew they were going to try to lock down Grafals to force us to change our game,” said Astor. “The rest of the team just stepped up and I got some steals at the end to push it our way.”
Fleming Island, 16th ranked in all classes at 17-1, opened with guard Gianfranco Grafals hitting his first three point attempt of the night and Astor hitting two free throws. The five points, after two minutes of missed shots and turnovers by both teams in the highly charged atmosphere, set the tone for a tooth and nail battle that would put the game on par with recent classics at the Raider Dome.
“This was a good challenge for us because they have a bunch of good ballhandlers,” said Fleming Island coach Traavis Chandler. “The beauty of having both of them (Astor and Grafals) makes it a challenge to stop us. If one struggles, the other picks him up.”
After the Fleming Island opening salvo, Orange Park senior John Abate, recently surpassing the 1,000 points in a career milestone, drove hard to a layup in front of a three pointer by guard Kaden Elmore to tie the game at 3:50.
With the Raiders feeding off the frenzy to get to an 11-8 lead, Fleming Island guard Khalil Pogue popped a three to tie the game and spur a four point Eagle surge. The first quarter ended at 17-13.
“Their ballhandlers were very good at getting past our full court press,” said Astor.
Orange Park ramped up their attack with an 11-0 barrage into the second quarter with the Raiders lane duo of DeMarre Craddock and Kenneth Banks flexing some muscle in the paint and Abate hitting a second three to put the Raiders up 24-17 in less than four minutes.
Orange Park could not miss a shot and ended the thrilling half up 33-23 as the roof on the Dome seemed ready to explode at the prospect of a season-ending upset.
“We were going to make adjustments from full court to half court pressure,” said Astor. “We just want to win. That’s our motiviation.”
As per their season’s script, Fleming Island started to claw back into the game with a 16-9 third quarter ignited by Astor and Abate trading slashes at the basket for their respective teams. Fleming Island would get to within two points; 41-39, behind an Astor steal-to-layup before Kurnitsky called a time out to get a breath.
“I think we finally woke up and starting diving for balls on the floor,” said Chandler.
A breakaway dunk attempt by Banks near the end of the third period got a hard foul from Fleming Island center Elias Martin that gave the Raiders a slim 42-39 lead as the pivotal fourth quarter was set to go.
Abate pumped in one more three to push Orange Park up 45-39 but consecutive jumpers off offensive rebounds from Astor, Jordan Miles and Aaron Brown put the lead in Fleming Island’s court, 46-45, with 6:10 to go and momentum slipping to the north end of the court.
A steal from Steele Perry (pun intended) and a Grafals three put Fleming Island up 50-45 with 5:22, but the Raiders pushed back to 52-51 behind two Abate jumpers and a Craddock bucket.
In arguably the timeliest time out call in the entire Fleming Island season, a loose ball at the Orange Park end of the court that Miles grabbed in a scramble got a quick time out from the Fleming Island coaching staff that gave the Golden Eagles possession with a minute to go and the score still at 52-51 with Orange Park generating a final surge.
A foul to Banks on Miles netted two free throws and a steal to layup by Astor on an inbounds pass heading to Abate sealed the game at 56-51 with just six seconds on the clock. Free throws on both sides ended the game.