PURVIS – Two of the Pine Belt’s best teams of 2019 clashed on the hardwood on Tuesday night.
The undefeated Purvis and undefeated Sacred Heart girls’ basketball teams looked to have a memorable non-district showdown. Instead, it was a night that resulted in an unprecedented lopsided 46-23 win for the Lady Tornados.
For Purvis coach Michael Thornton, whose team comes off an appearance in the 4A quarterfinals, the win showcased his team’s balanced offense and the strength of his defense.
“That was a good win for us tonight,” Thornton said. “Sacred Heart is a very well-coached team. I thought my players played with a lot of intensity. I thought our defensive effort was pretty good because they have several players who can shoot the ball well.”
For Sacred Heart’s Matt O’Keefe, the night was one of the most “disappointing” games he’s had in recent memory as his team comes off a Final Four appearance in the 1A playoffs.
“Tonight was probably our worst effort of the year,” O’Keefe said. “We got whipped. I don’t think Purvis is 20 points better than us, but tonight they were. They are well-coached. Mike and I have been friends for a long time, and I have a lot of respect for him.”
Purvis (5-0) jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first quarter and never had to look back.
The Tornados’ defense was effective enough to keep in check some of Sacred Heart’s top scorers from a season ago. The Lady Tornados’ held the Lady Crusaders’ top scorer Gracie Falla to 12 points, Mallory Gilberton to five points and Avery Smith to five points.
“They are an outside orientated team,” Thornton said. “We played tonight a combination of Diamond and One (defense) and Box-and-one and varied the players that we were chasing. Most of the time, we were chasing Falla or Smith. We tried to mix up defenses against them because they are such a good team.”
After holding a 12-3 lead at the end of the first quarter, Sacred Heart (4-1) narrowed the lead with back-to-back 3-pointers from Falla and Gilbertson. Yet, Purvis answered with a 7-2 run and extended its lead to 21-11.
While Purvis’ defensive tactic worked as the Lady Tornados forced other players to shoot the ball for O’Keefe, a major killer on the night was easy turnovers Sacred Heart gave away.
“(Thornton) was chasing certain people, which means other people have to hit shots,” O’Keefe
said. “We had lots of good looks, I thought. I thought unforced turnovers hurt us. It wasn’t from their defense; it was from making poor decisions when we have the ball, which has been our nemesis for two years.”
The Lady Tornados broke the game open with a 9-0 run at the end of the third quarter. That extended into a 12-0 run in the start of the fourth quarter to hold a 36-17 lead.
“We had a lot of people get shots, but we just couldn’t knock them down,” O’Keefe said. “I thought in the first half we didn’t play terribly bad. I thought the second half out effort was really poor. I was really disappointed.”
Two of Purvis’s main pieces of success were Andee Robertson, who knocked down three 3-pointers and led the team with 14 points along with Elise Jackson, who scored 11 points. Thornton also credited a key first-half performance from the bench by Bree Gray, who scored eight points.
“I thought Andee shot the ball well early,” Thornton said. “She’s an excellent shooter, and she had a couple go in and out.
“Our leading scorer, Elise Jackson, they did a good job on her tonight. They held her to 11 points. This was a total team victory. I thought in the first half Bree Gray provided a big lift from the bench. She ended up with eight points but six in the first half. I thought the girls did a good defensively with keeping Falla in check and hold Smith and Gilbertson to five points.
According to O’Keefe, Sacred Heart got off to a slow start with preparing for the season after having to deal with COVID-19 quarantines at the beginning of the year. While O’Keefe admits it was no excuse for Purvis’s loss, it has hindered the team’s preparation for the season.
“We have a long way to go before we are anywhere near where we were last year,” O’Keefe said. “We have been winning, but tonight was very lackluster.”
As for Thornton, he believes that the win over Sacred Heart shows that his young team shows signs of having benefited from last season’s deep playoff run.
“It’s a different year, but I think we have a pretty good core of players,” Thornton said. “Last year’s team went 24-10 and made the state quarterfinals, so the girls got a taste of the experience, and we have a lot of experience back. We are off to a good start.”