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Blue Eagles land on top in tight contest

By By SCOTT COOPER – Sports Writer
The W.S. Neal Blue Eagles notched an impressive win early in the week against the Pensacola Catholic Crusaders before stumbling out of the blocks - never to recover - later in the week against the Jay Royals.
W.S. Neal 69, Pensacola Catholic 59
A Jan. 6 seesaw battle at W.S. Neal High School between the W.S. Neal Blue Eagles and Pensacola Catholic Crusaders was decided with a clutch Blue Eagles' performance in the fourth period.
The two teams went toe-to-toe for three quarters and were separated by only a three-point margin when Neal took control in the last four minutes of the game to emerge with a 69-59 win.
In a fast-paced opening quarter that was played to a virtual standstill, Neal (5-11) took an early 2-0 lead on J.J. Pitts' short jumper before the Crusaders reeled-off the next seven points for a 7-2 lead. Neal baskets by Craig Tagudar and Nick Benjamin offset another Crusader two points and made the score stand at 9-6.
The squads continued swapping baskets over the next 3:40 left in the period. A Pensacola Catholic bucket was answered by Benjamin's 3-pointer to pull the Blue Eagles within two, 11-9, before another Crusader score was offset by a Pitts' baseline jumper that reduced the margin to 13-12 entering the second stanza.
Benjamin caught fire from long range to lead the Blue Eagles on a 32-22 second-quarter assault. Along with strong offensive production from Keith Woods, Benjamin's five 3-pointers in the period was largely responsible for Neal taking a 44-35 lead into the locker room at intermission.
A strong Crusader beginning to the third period reduced the Neal lead down to three, 44-41, with 4:30 to go in the quarter. With Pensacola Catholic working the ball down low with success, the visitors were able to remain within three, 53-50, entering the final quarter.
Midway through the fourth period, the Crusaders cut the lead to 57-55 when the Blue Eagles steadied themselves and went to work.
Benjamin followed his sixth 3-pointer of the game with a foul shot to give Neal a cushion, 61-55, with 3:32 to go. From that point, the Blue Eagles controlled the pace of the game while limiting the Crusaders' offensive opportunities. Tagudar, Woods and Benjamin hit game-clinching free throws down the stretch to put the wraps on a 10-point Neal victory.
Offensive leaders for the Blue Eagles were Nick Benjamin, 28 points; Keith Woods, 15 points and J.J. Pitts, 10 points.
Jay 78, W.S. Neal 37
The Blue Eagles suffered through an ice-cold night from the field in a Jan. 9 78-37 loss to the Jay Royals.
Never getting into an offensive rhythm over the first two periods, the Blue Eagles allowed Jay to slowly pull away to a 36-21 halftime lead.
By controlling the boards and appearing to be a step quicker both on the perimeter and inside the paint, the Royals not only prevented any type of W.S. Neal comeback, but also outscored the Blue Eagles 20-7 in the third quarter to build a 56-28 lead.
While never letting up with their offensive and defensive intensity, the Royals ran the floor and scored almost at will in the final period. As the buzzer sounded to end the game, Jay was in possession of a 41-point victory.