Jan. 24—VALDOSTA — In the first meeting between rivals Valdosta and Lowndes, it was the Wildcats who came away with the last laugh.
The VHS boys (12-8, 4-1 Region 1-7A) rode the strength of its backcourt and stingy defense to a 62-48 win over the Vikings (12-10, 3-2) in the nightcap.
Senior guard James Siplen slashed and dashed his way to the basket repeatedly as the Vikings struggled to contain Siplen and sophomore point guard Jabarri Williams off the dribble.
Siplen led all scorers with a career-high 26 points while Williams added 19 of his own.
As the game went on, the aggressive 'Cats seemed to wear down the Vikings. So much so, head coach James Lee shouted to his team, 'They're tired!" in the fourth quarter.
"That's what we pride ourselves on," Lee said of his guards attacking. "The last three years, we've had elite guards in Region 1-6A and we felt like coming to Region 1-7A, it would be much of the same. We pride ourselves on guard play. Jabarri was very poised. James had a huge night in hopefully his last time playing in this gym. They came out and really performed tonight so I'm proud of them."
Leading 45-40 heading into the fourth, the 'Cats saw the lead threatened immediately as Keyshawn Arthur opened the period with a 3-pointer to cut the lead to two.
Senior shooting guard Cameron Jackson knocked down two free throws that ended up igniting a 9-0 run capped by a jumper along the right baseline by Williams to give Valdosta a 54-43 lead with under 3 minutes remaining.
Another triple by Arthur would make it an eight-point game with 2:13 left, but the next possession proved costly for the Vikings as Williams attacked the basket and drew the fifth foul on Lowndes star wing Marcus Black — disqualifying him the rest of the way.
With Black out of the picture, the 'Cats closed out the game as Williams made both free throws, then Siplen answered a miss by the Vikings and went coast-to-coast for a nifty finish at the basket to put the 'Cats ahead 58-46 with 1:20 left.
Following a pair of free throws from Lowndes' Sam Shoptaw, Siplen iced the game with consecutive trips to the line for the final margin.
Playing without high-flying forward DJ Berry, the 'Cats turned to Siplen and Williams to be the focal points of the offense. Without Berry's defensively versatility, the 'Cats leaned heavily on 6-10 big man Israel Jenrette for rebounding and rim protection and the junior delivered — especially in the fourth quarter.
"We pride ourselves on top to bottom, one through 14, being ready — next man up," Lee said. "We had a great output from our bench tonight. Israel was dominant down low and that was one of our main keys we wanted to focus on — rebounding the ball, staying disciplined defensively and putting in all the work that got us to this point. That tough schedule we played over Christmas break, it really paid off for us."
Saturday's win was Valdosta fourth in region play and second straight win overall after dispatching Camden 77-62 in double-overtime Friday night. The 'Cats outscored Camden 19-4 in the second overtime period to secure the win and avenged a 54-47 loss at Camden Jan. 7.
In his first year leading the 'Cats, Lee talked about what getting his first rivalry win over the Vikings means to him and his program.
"It means a lot to us," Lee said. "We heard all the talk in the preseason. We saw all the write-ups. We felt like we had to come out and take our respect. Tonight definitely was a big win for us. They beat us both times last year, so I really wanted to come back and get that redemption for Coach (Darrell) Lockhart.
"It was really a big win, but the job's not done. I assume we'll see (Lowndes) two more times, so we'll be prepared."
LADY 'CATS 68, VIKETTES 56
Playing in front of a packed house inside the Crimson Colosseum, the Valdosta High Lady 'Cats (14-8, 5-0 Region 1-7A) seemed unfazed by the atmosphere — playing one of their most confident and accurate shooting games of the season to defeat the rival Vikettes (13-7, 4-1) 68-56.
Super senior Essence Cody once again led the way for the Lady 'Cats with 26 points, 18 rebounds (nine offensive), seven blocks, and four assists.
Cody struggled from the floor after a hot start, finishing 6 of 19 overall but knocked down two 3-pointers and hit 12 of 14 free throws in the game.
In a battle between two Division I basketball commits in Cody and Lowndes' Otaifo Esenabhalu, it was Cody who shined. Hampered by foul trouble, Esenabhalu scored just four points in the game.
"She's a phenomenal kid — not just a great athlete and a great player. She's a great student and has a wonderful attitude," Valdosta girls coach E.A. Wilcox said of Cody. "She embraced the moment. She said the last time we played them, she didn't play so well against (Otaifo) and this team as well. This time, she was like, 'I'm gonna play better for the team.'"
Senior combo guard Denver Arnold poured in 15 points along with six rebounds, three assists and three steals while junior forward Aniyah Bradfield flirted with another double-double with eight points, seven rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
As a team, Valdosta shot 38% from the floor, 7 of 19 from 3-point range and 20 of 27 at the free throw line in the win.
According to Wilcox, the team's improved confidence came from extra work on the shooting machine after practice this week.
"Our shooting has been pretty awful throughout the season," Wilcox acknowledged. "Last week, I started more shooting in practice. We usually shoot in practice, but I really started utilizing our shooting machine that our athletic director Reggie Mitchell helped us buy. He supports us 100%, so we've got two shooting machines now and we're really utilizing them.
"My girls are falling in love with shooting the basketball and being on the shooting machine, but also falling in love with defense. It showed. Today they felt confident because we prepared for what they were gonna throw at us. We knew they had the half-court press, so we prepared for that. I think our girls knew we were prepared and we changed some things up — some things (Lowndes coach Antonia Tookes) hadn't seen before — and I think that put us over the top."
Valdosta took control of the game in the third quarter, outscoring Lowndes 12-6 to take a 47-34 into the fourth quarter.
The Valdosta lead ballooned in the fourth as Bradfield poked the ball away from a Vikette and got the ball back on a kick ahead for an easy layup to put Valdosta ahead 66-45 with 1:45 remaining.
Despite leaving midway through the fourth quarter with a dislocated left shoulder, Lowndes sophomore Kaci Demps showed her toughness by returning to the contest and scoring six consecutive points — knocking down a three then converting a three-point play on a tough drive and floater to cut the lead down to 15 with 1:03 left.
Demps buried four treys in the game to lead the Vikettes with 19 points. Aryana Thomas added 15 points while Faith Johnson added eight points in the loss.
"Faith Johnson is a wonderful player. Kaci Demps and Aryana Thomas, they're all really good but our guard play — if we didn't play better than them tonight, we matched them perfectly," Wilcox said. "Denver shot the ball fairly well tonight. Nylali (Wolters) played well for us coming of the bench. Nykerria Walden got hurt in the game, but she played a very good game; defensively, especially. Nadia (Gardner) hit a couple threes as well. We've been on the shooting machine the last couple week pretty strong and I think that was the difference in the game for us playing as well."
With the win, Valdosta picked up its seventh straight victory and remained perfect in Region 1-7A at 5-0.
"We know we have three games left. Of course, everybody wants to be 8-0. We're 5-0. We're on top of the region right now and playing as good as we did tonight is something that we know that we can do," Wilcox said. "We've got to stay consistent. Being that this is a rivalry game and we're back in the same region in 7A, it's an even bigger win for us because of that.
"Obviously, I think that we'll be playing probably a couple more times. This team is really good and it takes everything out of us to make we get a win. I respect what Lowndes has on their team. I'm excited that we're No. 1 and we're gonna try to continue in that same form."
Valdosta hosts Richmond Hill (12-6, 2-3) Friday at 6 p.m., followed by the boys game at 7:30 p.m.
Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.