Linc Lyles believes winning close games to be among the later steps in a program's progression, that the ability to regularly close out an opponent might not come until tough lessons are learned.
And so he might sound a little surprised the way his Whale Branch boys basketball team is finishing off teams during its undefeated start. The Warriors trailed most of the game Wednesday in their home gym before coming back to take out rival Battery Creek, 57-52.
"I tell our team we can be a special team at the end of the season," Lyles said. "It's frustrating when you get behind, but our guys just never let up."
Whale Branch forward Leroy Perry led all scorers with 24 points, many a result of crashing the offensive glass. His team grabbed its first lead of the second half with 1:20 left. The Warriors forced 21 turnovers during the game, including four key steals with under a minute and a half to go.
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"You're not going to beat teams with 21 turnovers," said Battery Creek coach Antoine Youmans, whose team slipped to 2-5. "We've got to learn game situations."
After surrendering a 9-0 run to start the game, the Dolphins settled in. They led by eight entering the final quarter, but the Warriors quickly sliced the deficit with a Dee Delaney 3-pointer and two inside baskets from Perry.
And when Battery Creek needed to regroup, the Warriors defense wouldn't allow it. The Dolphins didn't enjoy a clean look the final two minutes.
"Coach kept us in the game, kept our head up," Whale Branch point guard Eric Frazier said. "Finish strong."
Lyles said he worried he had submitted the Warriors to too tough a practice the day before the game, and that when the Warriors found themselves down through much of the game that it might have been fatigue due to the lengthy workout.
But he said he detected a second wind from the Warriors during the fourth quarter and an opposite trend from the Dolphins. Lyles said the Warriors keep up with a "50-50" statistic, to see how many balls a player comes away with when each team has a shot at it. He felt the Warriors improved in the area as the game wore on.
"Those last two or three minutes, we were in our spots for our press, we hit some shots, made some free throws and we caused them to turn the ball over," he said. "Fatigue played a huge factor the final two minutes."
BATTERY CREEK (2-5) Justice Oliver 17, Michael Robinson 8, Tyrone Kelson 8, Devntae Wilson 7, Leroy Jennette 6, Cleveland Hampton 5, Teyvon Jennette 1.
WHALE BRANCH (5-0) Leroy Perry 24, Dee Delaney 12, Chavone Simmons 4, Eric Frazier 4, Josh Fields 4, Terrell Hazel 3, Jay Abney 2, Stedmon James 2.
Whale Branch girls 59, Battery Creek 20
Whale Branch coach Wilbert Bryant has not hesitated in placing the Warriors in the hands of a freshman.
The team desperately needed a ball-handler, and Kemoni Jenkins' arrival from Whale Branch Middle School answered the call. Jenkins helped facilitate the Warriors' offense again Wednesday and combined with fellow freshman Shaniqua Johnson for 21 points. Johnson provided the Warriors another post presence, joining returners S'Nitra Mack and Deborah Fields on what is a formidable front line.
"The two freshmen really bring us along," Bryant said. "That's a step we needed."
With the new pieces, Bryant has set his team's sights on a region title and the program's first playoff berth.
The Warriors won both meetings against their sister school to sweep the season series.
BATTERY CREEK (0-4) Daisja Cannon 10, Alisha Varela 4, Jasmine Wallace 3, Alexander Bazemore 2, Elizabeth Ford 1.
WHALE BRANCH (2-1) Kemoni Jenkins 11, Shaniqua Johnson 10, Kenyada Moultrie 7, S'Nitra Mack 7, Brittany Pryor 7, Cynthia Rivers 6, Sharrin Reed 5, Shaquanna Green 4, Deborah Fields 2.