A peek around Koch Arena on Thursday evening revealed the coaches and players the South boys basketball team is competing against for the City League title.
They had presumably come out to see how the Titans would fare against a streaking and state-ranked Derby team featuring one of the top players in the area in senior Papi Conley.
In its battle to gain respect from its peers, South took a large step in the right direction with a 69-62 victory over Derby in a game where the Titans stormed back from a 16-point deficit to improve to 7-3.
“It was a statement game,” South senior Daran Lee said. “We knew we were going to have to come out and prove everybody wrong.”
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Since losing to Andale in its season opener, Derby had rattled off five straight victories behind a stingy defense and a playmaker in Conley.
But on Thursday, all of that good work on the defensive end came undone. The Panthers did force 22 turnovers, a positive, but allowed South to make 54.2 percent of its shots.
When South wasn’t turning the ball over, it was busy picking apart whatever defense Derby threw at it. The Titans whipped it around the perimeter smartly, broke the press with superb passes, and finished with many easy looks around the basket.
“You have to defend if you’re going to win basketball games,” Derby coach Brett Flory said. “We didn’t guard the ball well. We didn’t protect gaps. In our press, we didn’t have good back pursuit. We just didn’t really defend very well.”
Still, Derby was armed with a 29-13 lead in a moment where South had more turnovers (14) than points (13) in the second quarter.
When halftime arrived, with South trailing 37-26, South coach Charles Gunter lit into his players. He challenged their effort. He challenged their smarts. He challenged them as players to take on this deficit and work for a victory.
The Titans listened to their coach. They responded with perhaps their most crisp offense of the season, making 60.9 percent of their shots and outscoring Derby 43-25 in the second half.
Conley (21 points) tried to keep Derby in it, giving it a 55-53 lead with 4:59 remaining, but Derby missed 10 of its next 11 shots and couldn’t produce the stops it needed to keep up with a surging South squad.
Dawson Gunter (17 points, five assists), Lee (15 points, 10 rebounds), Griffin (11 points), and Darren Lewis (12 rebounds) all were crucial to South’s victory.
SOUTH: Gunter 17, Turner 4, Griffin 11, Lee 15, Lewis 6, Donart 8, Brickhouse 0, Cunningham 2, Hudspeth 0, Harris 4, Ruffin 2, Taylor 0.
DERBY: Conley 21, Nicholson 6, Wright 12, Mark 3, Hall 6, Packard 3, Steadman 8, Green 3.
Arkansas City boys 52, West 47 — In a battle of winless teams, it was Ark City (1-6) that prevailed over the Pioneers (0-7) behind a season-high 27 points from senior guard Skyler Bryant.
West rallied from a 7-point deficit in the second half to build a 5-point lead in the fourth quarter, only to watch the Bulldogs close the game on a 15-5 run. West was led in scoring by Isaac Rodriguez with 15 points.
WEST: Reed 11, Brown 0, T. Rodriguez 7, I. Rodriguez 15, Horton 4, Moore 4, Saunders 4, Carpentier 0, Johnson 0, Pugh 2.
ARK CITY: Spencer 5, Metcalf 2, McVey 2, Bryant 27, Haley 7, Wells 3, Miller 0, Lolar 6, Walker 0.