The broken clipboard sitting outside Rock Hill boys’ basketball coach Eric Rollings’ office said enough. The Bearcats sleepwalked through the first half of their Thursday night Y.C. Winborn Holiday Classic game against Walnut Grove Christian before snapping to life in the second half of a 91-51 win.
“I wasn’t happy at all,” said Rollings, “and I’m still not happy with our effort. We’ve got talented players and we’ve got a talented bench as well. But just the effort. If we can show up and play with the effort we’ve talked about, we’ll be fine.”
Warren Vinson hit four three-pointers and scored 14 to lead the balanced Bearcats, who had 10 of their 11 players score at least seven points. But the subpar first half left a bad taste in Rock Hill mouths, even with a 40-point victory.
“They were just out-playing us, out-hustling us,” said Rock Hill senior forward Roderick Howell. “I think we underestimated them and just played at their level.”
Rock Hill played like a dodgy satellite set in the first half Thursday night, their focus flicking in and out, perhaps effected by the cold, driving rain outside the gymnasium. But the Bearcats (6-1) oustscored an overmatched Walnut Grove (8-4) squad 55-20 in the second half to crack open a game in which they occasionally bogged down but eventually prevailed.
“We didn’t show up with the energy and passion I’ve seen our basketball team play with,” said Rollings, who acknowledged that his players were out of school for the day. “But you know what? Basketball is fun and our kids love it, and if you love it, you’re gonna do what it takes to win.”
Walnut Grove wing Jeremy Wallace, a low-major Division I recruit, scored 12 and produced a slew of Sportscenter-quality blocks and dunks, including one baseline move in the first half that he punctuated with a thumping slam over Rock Hill’s 6-foot-7 Jaleel Scott. But he fouled out with six minutes left in the game, and where Walnut Grove had quality without quantity, the Bearcats ultimately had too much of both.
“Our starters did a good job and got it out to 12 or 13 and then our bench extended the lead on out,” Rollings said. “We talked about putting some of those guys back in, but our bench is important to us and they did a good job to finish it out.”
Walnut Grove, based in Fort Mill and coached by former College of Charleston hoops great Dwayne Grace, was hardly impressive in the warmups. The Flying Squirrels dressed just eight players and they rather lethargically took shots, while Rock Hill executed its precisely-planned pregame. Walnut Grove’s unimpressive warmup proved to be one of its best weapons in the game.
“They were small,” said Howell. “We just were looking at them in a different way. But they came to play and we didn’t.”
The game’s first couple of minutes were illustrative of Walnut Grove’s scrappiness, and the Bearcats’ ability to blow the doors off the gym when the mood struck. Point guard Nate Motley broke out and lobbed to Roderick Howell for rim-rattler inside of 20 seconds. Motley then pushed the rock into the lane and fed Reid on the wing for a wide-open three. Deante Fleming then rebounded a Bearcat miss for two more points and a 7-0 Rock Hill lead.
But Walnut Grove was back into the game in no time, Wallace tipping in a miss before knocking down a triple. A Marcus Keene three made it 10-8.
Later in the half Keene scored inside with a nifty head-fake, before Devin Cooper finished easily on a run-out due to poor defensive rotation to make it 27-21 (still Rock Hill). A Cooper steal led to another bunny layup for the point guard and Whitfield’s three-pointer cut the Bearcats’ lead to 30-26 with just under four minutes left in the first half.
Incredibly, Walnut Grove kept leaking out for easy buckets and Cooper’s lay-in after a loose ball at the midcourt area pulled the Flying Squirrels within two, 30-28. Rock Hill scored six straight points, all in the paint to push the lead back to eight, but Whitfield’s and-one with 1.2 seconds left meant the Bearcats only led by five at the half, 36-31.
After a fiery halftime talk, the Bearcats emerged with their focus narrowed. Howell scored inside courtesy of flashy Motley feed that was followed by a Vinson three-point rainbow for a 42-31 lead and a Walnut Grove timeout. A Vinson layup set up the full court press and Jaylen Reid scored off a flying steal on the ensuing play for a 46-37 lead with three minutes left in the third. Reid then snared an errant pass and kicked ahead to Howell for another rim-rocker, before scoring on another transition move for a 50-37 Rock Hill lead that forced a Walnut Grove timeout. Motley’s deep three out of the timeout made it a 16-point Bearcat lead and effectively squashed the Flying Squirrels’ high-flying upset dreams.
Rock Hill: Nate Motley 7, Malik Crawford 8, Tre Thompson 11, Warren Vinson 14, Jaylen Reid 10, Roderick Howell 8, Jordan McCraw 7, Jaleel Scott 8, Deante Fleming 7, Jamil Simpson 3, Stephen Whitlock 7. Walnut Grove: Devin Cooper 14, Zahir Whitfield 13, Desean Attles 4, Marcus Keene 8, Jeremy Wallace 12.
3-point goals: Rock Hill 9 (Vinson 4, Whitlock, Motley, Thompson, McCraw, Reid); Walnut Grove 5 (Wallace 2, Cooper, Whitfield, Keene).
Team fouls: Rock Hill 18; Walnut Grove 16.
Foul shooting: Rock Hill 6-11; Walnut Grove 6-14.
Bret McCormick 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T