Short-handed Thomas Jefferson boys basketball saw a nine-point lead evaporate early in the fourth quarter before battling through the adversity down the stretch for a 63-54 win to open Ozark 7 Conference play on Thursday.
The Cavaliers faced a heavy dose of the press defense early while building a 30-25 lead by halftime. Thomas Jefferson pushed the lead to nine to start the fourth before finding themselves all tied up with Wheaton two minutes in. TJ showed resolve, never giving up the lead before pulling back out in front on the way to the win.
“We preach family and we preach team all the time,” Thomas Jefferson coach Chris Myers said. “We talk about when one guy goes down, somebody else is going to get an opportunity and have to step up. That is what families do. When someone at home is hurt or sick, other family members step up. That’s what we preach out here and the kids are really doing a good job of it. We have several starters out and we asked other kids to step up into roles they are not accustomed to. They just put the family on their back, fought and did what they could to get the win tonight.”
Playing with just eight players tonight because of injuries and illness, the Cavaliers improved to 9-2 overall and 1-0 in conference play.
“Our conference is really tough this year,” Myers said. “For a small-school conference, we have a lot of really good teams. It is pretty deep. Anytime you can come out and get a conference win, you always savor it. We are excited with the direction the team is going even with all of the bumps and bruises and things we are dealing with.”
Junior forward Jay Ball was the catalyst for Thomas Jefferson in the win, scoring a game-high 32 points with 16 coming in each half. He pulled down a game-high 21 rebounds and swatted three blocks to finish with a double-double. Drew Goodhope finished with 16 points, nine in the first half, while Jake Jarrett added nine points, eight assists and five rebounds in the win.
Kelton Park finished 29, 18 coming in the second half, to lead Wheaton. Blake Morgan had nine and Johnson finished with six.
Wheaton went to the full-court trap early, which caused trouble for the Cavaliers with several players stepping into bigger roles. The Bulldogs built an early 9-3 lead three minutes into the game thanks to three 3-pointers from Morgan.
Thomas Jefferson showed progress in handling the press through the remainder of the quarter, using a 10-2 run highlighted by two three-point plays from Ball and a pair of baskets on the break by Goodhope to build a 14-11 lead. The Cavaliers led 16-15 heading into the second quarter.
Thomas Jefferson made it a point to focus on Ball in the offense in the second period, with the 6-foot-6 forward scoring four of his team’s six field goals in the quarter on the way to a 30-25 lead at the intermission.
“We went from 15 to eight guys in a matter of a week,” Myers said. “Kids had to step up and do things. It took us a little while to settle into the game plan but once they got their feet wet, I thought our kids did a fantastic job of getting it inside. Jay is always a big part of our offense. Everything has to go through him to be successful. I really thought our kids did a much better job in the second quarter of really pounding the ball inside to him.”
The Cavaliers pushed the lead double digits for the first time in the later stages of the third quarter. Leading 38-32 coming off a bucket from Park—who scored all 11 points for the Bulldogs in the quarter—Ball and Jarrett each grabbed an offensive rebound for a bucket on consecutive trips to give Thomas Jefferson a 42-32 lead at the 2:10 mark.
TJ took a nine-point cushion into the final eight minutes, but Wheaton started the fourth quarter on fire from the perimeter as Zane Johnson, Fernando Gonzalez and Park all knocked down 3-pointers for a 9-0 run to tie the game at 45s with 6:04 left in regulation.
The Cavaliers responded with an inside score from Ball followed by Luke Miller grabbing his own miss for a bucket. Goodhope added a 3-pointer from the corner with four minutes left to give Thomas Jefferson a 52-47 advantage.
Up three, the Cavs scored six straight points backed by two paint scores from Ball to push the lead back to nine with less than a minute to play.
“I will be honest with you, I have been doing this a long time and I don’t know that I have ever been more proud of a team than I was tonight,” Myers said. “With all of the moving pieces that we had and the short notice (of players being unavailable)—I had to give a kid a varsity jersey today that didn’t even have one—I am just ecstatic for the kids and excited to see them come out here and do what they did to get a win. It says a lot about them. Hopefully, we can keep building on that and stack a few more of these together down the road.”
Thomas Jefferson takes part in the Tony Dubray Classic on Jan. 17.