Blue Eagles outlast Central in opening round
By By SCOTT COOPER – Sports Editor
In the opening round of the Miller Invitational played Jan. 2 at Miller Gym, the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles relinquished a seemingly comfortable fourth-quarter lead before going into overtime and gaining a 56-55 victory over the Central Jaguars.
The narrow win was the third in the last four games for the Blue Eagles (4-9) and earned them the right to advance through the winner's bracket against the T.R. Miller Tigers in Friday's second round.
Central made things difficult for Neal early before the Blue Eagles rallied in the second quarter to hold a slight halftime advantage. As the second half progressed, the Blue Eagles gradually pulled away and stretched their advantage to 10 points midway through the final quarter before a furious Jaguar comeback forced the game into overtime.
Central began the game working the ball inside and scored the first six points before Neal got consecutive baskets from J.J. Pitts and another from Keith Woods to tie the game at 6-6. After a Jaguar basket made the score 8-6, a Pitts jumper coupled with a Marcus Folmar free throw gave the Blue Eagles their first lead of the game, 9-8. Central then proceeded to score the next four points to regain the lead at 12-8 before Woods''baseline move at the quarter-ending buzzer was good for two points and allowed the Blue Eagles to cut the lead to a single point, 12-11.
Pitts registered the first four points of the second stanza for a 15-12 Neal lead. Following a Central basket that cut the Blue Eagle advantage to 15-14, Nick Benjamin's drive to the hole made the score 17-14 with 4:25 left before halftime.
Both teams suffered from cold shooting and offensive errors over the next few minutes, but the action heated up just before the break.
A Woods' basket in close along with a Marcus Floyd free throw gave the Blue Eagles a 23-16 lead, but then a Jaguar buzzer-beating jump shot cut the margin to 23-18 at intermission.
The third quarter was evenly contested, but a layup at the end of the period allowed Central to reduce the 5-point Blue Eagle halftime lead down to four, 33-29, entering the fourth period of play.
Offensive fireworks provided by Folmar, Benjamin, Woods and Pitts were responsible for the Blue Eagles taking control of the game at 44-34 with 3:18 left in the game. But, the Jaguars outscored Neal 15-5 the rest of the way to send the game into overtime with the teams deadlocked at 49-49.
Craig Tagudar hit a free throw for a 52-49 Neal lead in the overtime period before a Central basket tightened the score at 52-51. Floyd's basket on a putback regained the 3-point Blue Eagle advantage at 54-51, but a Jaguar jumper that found the bottom of the net once again cut the margin to one, 54-53, with 1:08 left.
After a free throw by Pitts was answered by a Central basket, the teams were tied at 55-55 and the Jaguars had possession with 8.9 seconds showing on the clock.
After driving the lane, the Jaguars missed an inside shot attempt that Neal's Woods rebounded. In the process, Woods was fouled and went to the line for a chance to ice the game.
Woods came through in the clutch, hitting the front end of two free throw attempts that proved to be the difference in the 56-55 win.
Leading the Blue Eagles in scoring were Keith Woods, 16 points; J.J. Pitts, 14 points and Nick Benjamin, 11 points.