Most young folks learn best the hard way.
South Pointe senior P.J. Heath gleaned a life lesson during the Stallions’ 68-65 loss to rival Rock Hill on Jan. 3, when he was ejected in the first quarter for trash talking. The game was decided solely by a missed three-pointer at the buzzer. Rock Hill and South Pointe cross swords again Friday night, and Heath, a talented 6-foot-4 slasher, isn’t about to repeat the mistakes of his recent past.
“This is the biggest game of the season for me,” he said Thursday. “I learned never to do it again; keep my mouth shut.”
Adding to the normal weight of an intense rivalry game, South Pointe (15-1, 9-1) is ranked fourth and Rock Hill (16-5, 10-1) fifth in the most recent S.C. Basketball Coaches Association state polls. A win for either team Friday night will position their hands firmly on the Region title’s steering wheel. Most of the parties involved can’t remember the last game when two Rock Hill teams were ranked so highly.
All agree Friday night’s contest will be a biggie.
“It should be a good, fun game,” Rock Hill coach Eric Rollings said. “This is what it’s made to be like.”
Second-year South Pointe coach Melvin Watson added, “I think a lot of people are proud and excited about some of the changes happening in the two programs,” an allusion to the improvement in boys basketball at both schools.
Rock Hill narrowly upended the Stallions in the first meeting, South Pointe’s only loss of the season. Rock Hill held an 11-point lead early in the fourth quarter before Watson’s Stallions charged back. The Bearcats missed late free throws, allowing South Pointe a chance to send the game to overtime, but Anthony Johnson’s 3-pointer at the buzzer clanged off the front of the rim.
Johnson scored 32 in the first game, but South Pointe clearly missed Heath and injured point guard Tyreece Brice, who will be back in the lineup Friday night.
Heath’s absence was critical, as Rock Hill battered the Stallions on the offensive glass. Jaylen Reid, Roderick Howell, Deontae Fleming and Jaleel Scott all average over five rebounds per game for Rock Hill, one of the strengths of Rollings’ team. With five players over 6-foot-3, the Bearcats have the depth and size to play volleyball on the backboards with any team, a hopeless task South Pointe has to avoid.
Watson: “That was one of the keys in the first game, offensive rebounds. We gave up too many and Rock Hill was able to take advantage of that. Just looking at their team, they’re long. It’s gonna come down to us doing the little things, boxing out.”
Rollings said his team does an excellent job attacking the glass, and warned, “we’re gradually getting better.”
Brice’s return sets up a juicy-looking point guard matchup. Rock Hill’s Nate Motley is averaging 15 points, nine assists and four rebounds and has helped steer the Bearcats through difficult patches that might have sunk them last season. Brice, a junior, has the same ability to pilot the South Pointe attack.
“Tyreece is a good player; he’s well known throughout the state,” Rollings said.
Johnson said Brice is central to the Stallions truly stretching their legs in transition.
“He can push the ball and get shots for us,” said the soft-spoken scorer.
In a game with two evenly matched squads, keeping a cool head might be the difference, again. Rock Hill hasn’t had the on-court discipline issues that hampered its squad at times last year.
“It’s just about chemistry,” Rollings said. “We’ve got nine seniors and I think they’ve matured over the last year. These kids definitely learned something and took something from our struggles at the end of the year.”
Have Heath and the Stallions learned from their mental lapses earlier this month?
“I hope we did,” Watson said emphatically. “But it’s all in the competitiveness of the game. Both teams don’t have those kinds of kids, or carry that type of character off the court. There’s nothing wrong with guys being competitive; we just have to control it.”
That’s not always easy to do. As Heath said, “It’s really hard, because they’re trying to get in my head and get me out the game.”
South Pointe went 2-9 last year against 4A competition in Watson’s rookie season at the helm. Everybody in the Stallion program took their medicine, and they’ve made a seamless step up to 4A this season.
“A year makes a big difference,” said Watson.
He’ll find out Friday night if a month does too.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T