Right before the national anthem sounded at Grafton High Wednesday night prior to tip-off of the Bay Rivers District semifinal between top-seeded Grafton and No. 4 Tabb, Clippers coach Jeremy Jordan turned to his star forward Elijah Moore and offered up a challenge.
“I told [Moore], ‘you and I both know that you’re the best player on the court,’” Jordan said. “So I said there’s two things you can do. You can go through the motions tonight, or, you can go out there and show everyone that you truly are the best player on the floor.”
As if his second-straight district Player of the Year award doesn’t speak for itself, Moore chose the latter, and did so emphatically.
Moore erupted for 23 of his game-high 29 points in the first half as the Clippers (22-2) put this one away early.
After Tyler McMillan, Joey Miller and Jesse Santiago (10 points, 12 rebounds), opened the game with consecutive layups to give Grafton a quick 6-0 advantage, Moore scored the next 13 straight points for the Clippers who led 19-7 after one period.
Moore was just getting started.
After opening the second quarter by burying a 3-point bucket from the corner, Moore then began attacking the rack, and capped off a 12-1 run with a vicious, one-handed tomahawk dunk that gave Grafton a commanding 27-8 lead. Moore finished with 23 of his team’s 33 first-half points as the Clippers’ lead ballooned to 33-8 at the break.
“Coach [Jordan] told me before the game that I was the best player on the floor and to look for my shot more,” Moore said after the game. “I started feeling it after the first couple (made baskets) and just kept shooting.”
Moore’s offensive explosion was the clear difference in Grafton’s early dominance, however an outstanding showing on the defensive end, highlighted by Santiago’s effort on the district’s leading scorer Kaleb Mitchell, was just as significant.
Mitchell and forward Daniel Schiele, who have combined to score roughly 40 of Tabb’s 58 points per game this season, were held to 1-9 shooting in the first half. The Tigers (13-11) also turned the ball over 13 times during the first two quarters, including eight in the second period when Tabb scored just a single point.
“Our focus was to hold Schiele and Kaleb [Mitchell] to 10 points apiece,” Jordan said. “When we clamp down and play defense, we score the ball offensively, and tonight was no exception.”
Added Tabb coach Doug Baggett, “Offensively in the first half, we didn’t do a thing right. We were sluggish, didn’t set screens, didn’t come off screens and made bad decisions.
“As bad as we played, we probably missed enough layups and free throws to make a game of it. I thought we got much better on both sides of the ball in the second half, but the game was already pretty much over.”
The Tigers’ offense woke up in the third quarter as Terrell Sheffey provided a spark with three 3-pointers in the period to make it a 20 point game, 42-22. But Santiago, who scored eight of his 10 points in the final two quarters, played an aggressive second half inside, crashing the glass and creating numerous second-chance points.
A late fourth-quarter run led by Mitchell, who scored seven of his team-high 12 in the period, trimmed Grafton’s lead to 16 (56-40), however, as Baggett noted, the Tigers had already dug themselves an insurmountable hole.
“We finally decided to show up; it was just too late,” Baggett said. “But for Elijah to score 23 in the first half, that was the difference in the ball game. I thought Jake [Brown] actually did a decent job on [Moore], we just don’t have anyone that can match his length and get a hand in his face.”
With the win, Grafton advances to play Bruton, which edged Warhill 65-59 in Wednesday’s other semifinal, in Friday’s championship. Tabb will take the court again Thursday to face Warhill in the third-place consolation game.
Grafton 58 Tabb 40
Grafton- 19 14 14 11 – 58
Tabb- 7 1 18 14 – 40
Grafton (22-2)- E. Moore 29, Santiago 10, McMillan 9, Miller 3, I. Moore 2, Sperling 2, Parker 1. Totals 24 7-14; 58.
Tabb (13-11)- Mitchell 12, Sheffey 12, Schiele 5, Brown 4, Fessehaie 3, Candusso 2, Myatt 1, Jansen 1. Totals 12 10-20; 40.