JACKSONVILLE - The first quarter of the Orange Park High Lady Raiders basketball game against Mandarin (12-4) at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Tournament staged at University Christian on Monday could be described two different ways; poor shooting by both teams or great defense by both teams.
"That was probably the worst first half of basketball that this team has ever played," said Orange Park head coach Fred Cole, now at 15-4 and chasing Middleburg High (11-5) for the district 3-5A title. "I told them at halftime that despite scoring just 15 points for a half, we were still just six points away. Let's grind it out, chip away at the lead and win a tough one."
Cole's speech worked as the Raiders overcame a defensive stuffing from a size-advantaged Mandarin team to win a 42-36 game.
"We started making the layups we were missing in the first half," said Cole. "Right out of the lockers, we got a handful of steals to layups that shifted the momentum. This team has matured to not give up at halftime if we are playing poorly."
In that decisive third quarter, senior guard Nayeli Williams woke up her Raider teammates with a steal to assist to center Nia Brown and a feed to guard Macie Faucett for a three pointer for five quick points.
Forward Sha'Mia Capers hit for two buckets and two free throws to put Orange Park up 26-24 with a minute left in the third quarter.
Still down 31-29 as the fourth quarter started, Orange Park throttled up for another fast start with seven points in a row; layups from Faucett, another Brown layup off a looped assist from Williams and a three pointer from Capers to put the Mandarin defense on its heels.
Cole cited sophomore forward Amara Delgado's play as a jolt for the Raider lineup.
"We have Yoly (guard Yoly Rosado) still nursing knee surgery and forward Sydney Rowland out with an ankle and guard Trenity Gilford at a family emergency, so I was hoping the young players would step up in a big game like this," said Cole. "Amara did a nice job underneath with Sha'mia and Nia."
As for the upcoming district tournament and a possible clash with Middleburg, Cole likes his team's mental tenacity.
"The grittiness is what I like," said Cole. "I have not seen Middleburg play, but we have shown in the last three games; Episcopal, Oakleaf and now Mandarin, that we can win games without shooting well. We toughen up on defense, get turnovers, score layups. I like the way we play in tough games. There is no give up."