It was no ordinary season opener.
Then again, it was no ordinary week for Orange men’s basketball leading up to its first game against Hillside on Friday night in Hillsborough. On Monday, Orange’s centerpiece, sophomore Coleman Cloer, suffered a broken left ankle after a fluky incident during practice. He is expected to miss at least two weeks.
Over the summer, Cloer received scholarship offers from N.C. State, Wake Forest, Tennessee and Appalachian State, just to name a few. He wore a walking boot on the Orange bench Friday night.
In Cloer’s absence, there would have to be an unlikely hero to emerge.
Fortunately, Malachi Poole was up to the task.
In a frantic final sequence, Orange point guard Kai Wade tied the game with a pull-up jumper from twelve feet over Suliaman Shackleford with nine seconds remaining.
As Orange set up a full court press with the game tied 66-66, Hillside’s Jayde Braswell threw a soft pass that was deflected by Panthers guard Freddy Sneed, who nearly bumped into an Orange teacher along the sidelines as he raked in the steal. With time drifting away, Sneed threw the ball to Xandrell Pennix, standing left of the lane facing the bleachers. Pennix didn’t see the basket, but he did see Poole standing alone on the wing wide open as the Hornets were caught off guard in the scramble. Pennix threw to Poole, who launched his only shot of the night. It swirled into the net with two seconds remaining to send the Orange student section into a collective roar.
Hillside coach Rashard Lee-Worthy had used all his timeouts and his team was too stunned to inbound the ball as the final moments ticked away. The students rushed the floor to celebrate a win that was a season opener in name only.
“At that point, they were turning us over,” said Orange coach Derryl Britt. “They were giving us trouble bringing the ball up. I knew that Kai was a little fatigued. So we needed to get another ball handler in. So we went to Malachi because he’s a shooter. Malachi has been going through some things. That was a big shot for us as a team, but it was a bigger shot for him, personally. I’m so happy for that guy.”
Orange won 69-66, its first victory over Hillside since December 9, 2009. Wade, a sophomore point guard finished with 18 points. Sneed, who had never scored in double-figures in a varsity game, came away with 16 points, five steals and four rebounds. The Panthers put four players in double-figures, including senior center Ryan Honeycutt, who finished with a double-double of 10 points and 13 rebounds.
Shackelford led Hillside with 24 points. Justin Lewis came off the bench to score 14 points, including four three-pointers.
The irony of Orange scoring the game-winning basket off a steal from full-court pressure was that Hillside rallied from 17 points down the exact same way. The Panthers committed seven turnovers in the fourth quarter, leading to the Hornets taking the lead with 4:12 remaining after a three-pointer from Brandon Watley, who scored all 12 of his points in the second half.
There were five lead changes in the final three minutes. Orange sophomore center Mason Robinson grabbed an offensive rebound and shoveled the ball off to Honeycutt for a lay-in to put the Panthers ahead 62-61 with 2:58 remaining.
Jayde Braswell was fouled by Honeycutt and sank two free throws. After a pass slipped through the hands of Hillside center T.J. Ray, Wade went behind-the-back and drilled a 13-footer. Orange maintained a 64-63 lead until the Hornets forced yet another turnover off its full-court pressure. Shackleford stole the ball from Wade, drove to the basket and scored on a lay-in and was fouled by Robinson. Shackleford’s free throw put the Hornets ahead 66-64.
Orange built a 51-34 lead with 2:39 remaining in the third quarter. Sneed completed a 13-1 Orange run with a steal and drive to the basket while he was fouled by Lewis, who picked up his fourth foul and was never a factor again. Pennix drilled the first of Orange’s two 3-pointers in the second half during the run. Pennix, who has played on the varsity since his freshman year, finished with 12 points.
“We took a gut punch on Monday night when Cole went down,” Britt said. “We realized it was a bit serious. We bent over, collected ourselves. Everybody went home and thought about it. Then on Tuesday afternoon, it was very similar to the St. Louis Rams when they lost Trent Green (in 1999). (The Rams went on to win the Super Bowl with Kurt Warner at quarterback). I told the team we have the players to win and we will play good basketball. Whether we win or lose games? We’ll see. But we will make other teams beat us.”
Even without Cloer, the Panthers shot 49% from the field. The Hornets used 21 offensive rebounds to keep things close. Orange never trailed in the first half, leading by as much as 32-26 after a dunk by Honeycutt from a lob by Robinson. with 3:32 remaining in the second quarter. Lewis scored 14 points in the first half to reduce Orange’s lead to 33-31 with 1:05 remaining, Robinson and Pennix scored the final field goals of the half to put the Panthers ahead 38-31 at halftime.
ORANGE 69, HILLSIDE 66
HIL–15 16 15 20–66
ORA–19 19 15 16–69
HILLSIDE–Brandon Watley 12, Justin Morgan 2, Suliaman Shackleford 24, Jayde Braswell 12, Justin Lewis 14, Quinton Cozart 2.
ORANGE–Xandrell Pennix 12, Freddy Sneed 16, Kai Wade 18, Ryan Moss 2, Ryan Honeycutt 10, Malaykhi Justice 2, Mason Robinson 4, Malachi Poole 3, Hector Garrido 2.
3-Point baskets: Hillside 9 (Watley 3, Lewis 4, Shackleford 2). Orange 3 (Pennix 2, Poole)
Rebounds: Hillside 34 (Shackleford 7) Orange 45 (Honeycutt 13)