ROXBORO–In a best-case scenario, the Orange men’s basketball team could have wrapped up the Central Conference regular season championship in Roxboro on Tuesday night.
But the terms “best-case scenario” and “Roxboro” never belong in a sentence together for Orange.
Certainly not on Tuesday night.
As Person defeated Orange 74-68 in Rockets Gymnasium, the race for the conference championship suddenly got more interesting on several fronts.
Orange (11-11, 9-1 in the Central Conference) now leads Eastern Alamance by one game in the loss column for first place with nine days remaining in the regular season. The Eagles defeated Cedar Ridge 72-50 in Mebane on Tuesday to improve to 7-2 in the Central Conference.
Following its Senior Night contest against Southern Alamance this Friday, Orange will travel to face Eastern Alamance on the final night of the regular season February 16.
It was Orange’s fourth straight loss inside Rockets Gymnasium. The Panthers haven’t won in Roxboro since December 15, 2015.
Orange center Ryan Honeycutt, the only senior to regularly start for the Panthers, will miss the rest of the season after suffering a broken thumb following a hard foul against Cedar Ridge in the third quarter on Friday night. Honeycutt’s thumb was in a cast as he watched the game from the bench and won’t be removed for another six weeks, which will cut into baseball season, his top sport.
Losing Honeycutt removed a top finisher and a valuable, experienced rebounder for an Orange team that was fully healthy for the past 12 games, a stretch where the Panthers had gone 9-3 and had won eight straight. Without him, Orange’s offense looked off kilter against the Rockets early.
Then Orange’s leading scorer, Coleman Cloer, was hit with three fouls in the opening quarter, two of which came off the ball. It forced Cloer, who wasn’t called for a foul in either of Orange’s two games last week, to the bench for the entire second quarter.
Not that Cloer was alone in getting in foul trouble. Person’s top two scorers, Lance Clarke and DaeJon Hodge, each picked up two fouls in the first half. Clarke didn’t play in the second quarter, either.
But Person still had finishers. Orange’s last lead in the game came at 4-2 following a drive by sophomore Kai Wade. Without Honeycutt there to close out on him, Hodge drained a series of short, baseline jumpers to put Person ahead 6-4. When Cloer picked up his third foul on an offensive foul on the weak side trying to gain position against Clarke, the Panthers went into a tailspin.
Person went on a 14-2 run that included two more jumpers from Hodge and a three-pointer from Quante Bowman that gave Person its largest lead at 20-8. The only period Orange’s offense was in a rhythm came in the final 4:30 of the second quarter when its three-quarters court press began creating turnovers. Junior Xandrell Pennix led the charge with eleven points in the second quarter, including two three-pointers. Orange finished the half on a 9-2 run behind two 3-pointers from Pennix and got within a point following a lay-in from Freddy Sneed.
In Orange’s 63-58 win over Person in Hillsborough last month, they hit ten 3-pointers. On Tuesday night, they were limited to four.
Cloer, limited to three points in the first half, came out like a hungry animal in the second half. He tied the game at 39-39 following a three-pointer from the corner where Orange got a rare fortunate bounce off a Person rim. The Rockets quickly summoned the lead for good when Clarke scored on a baseline jumper from 15-feet. Person’s Romello Snow, who didn’t score in the first meeting with Orange, dropped a quickly finger roll, the last of his eight points. After Sneed responded for Orange, Clarke drained a 3-pointer to put Person ahead 46-41.
The Rockets got balanced scoring in the fourth quarter to pull away. Reserve center Lamont Johnson opened with back-to-back field goals, the first of five different Person players to score in the final eight minutes. After Cloer was called for his fourth foul for using his off arm to shield a Person defender, Hodge hit a wing jumper to give the Rockets a 58-50 lad with 4:00 remaining. Clarke rebounded a miss by Johnson for a lay-in to increase Person’s lead to 60-50.
Cloer scored 19 of Orange’s 21 points in the fourth quarter, but the only other Panther to get on the scoring ledger late was Mason Robinson off a dunk set up by Cloer.
Orange made a late charge behind Cloer and actually got the lead down to 70-68 after he hit three free throws, but Clarke and Bowman each hit two free throws to put the game away.
As Orange left the floor following its first conference loss, the Rockets students showered them with “overrated” chants.