MATANZAS – Buoyed by two of three wins in the St. Johns River Athletic Conference tournament, including a monster win over 6th-ranked in Florida Palatka on Thursday, the Orange Park High Raider basketball team showed off a little playoff prowess a week before the playoffs are to begin.
“Regular season win against Palatka was a big one for the Raider program,” said Orange Park coach Derek Kurnitsky. “We showed ourselves that when we are on, we are hard to beat. We weren’t ranked, but that’s okay, we can sneak up on people.”
On Saturday, though, the Raiders good fortunes fell just short to 7A-St. Augustine in the SJRAC championship game.
“That’s any sport, any given day,” said Kurnistky, who watched his Raiders drop a tough 43-40 game to the Yellowjackets in the tournament final with two missed shots in the final seconds and a botched in-bound pass thwarting a Raider title. “We played them as hard as the other two. The ball just didn’t fall.”
Orange Park (14-9) continues to end regular season play with 6A-Clay (11-9) on February 6 and a showdown with 4th-ranked state wide Fleming Island High (15-1) on February 8 in the Raiderdome.
Clay is struggling through a five game losing streak with recent losses to Ridgeview, Palatka, Orange Park, Oakleaf and Fleming Island in a gauntlet of a schedule for coach Jared Moses. Fleming Island’s lone loss is a tournament final against University Christian on December 22.
In the Palatka game, a SJRAC semifinal, the Raiders were led by senior guard John Abate who fearlessly attacked the much-acclaimed middle of the Panther defense where three players above 6’-3” patrolled.
“Our scheme was to go right at them,” said Abate, who finished with 32 points on the night. “It was a fun game for us. We want to be the first team in Clay County to win three district titles in a row.”
Abate opened the contest with a three-pointer that set a tone, but Palatka was hardly polite about it and answered with their own three and a dunk in the faceoff.
From there, Palatka surged to a 16-12 first quarter lead behind a three pointer and a turnaround jumper.
Abate again put the momentum back on the Raider side with two hard baseline drives getting the score knotted at 18-18 then one more for a 20-18 lead. With Palatka’s defense on its heels in the paint, Abate went for one more drive only to dish off to center Kenneth Banks who threw down a two-handed dunk for emphasis.
“Banks was a dude tonight with Craddock (D’Marre Craddock, forward) both playing big on their big guys,” said Kurnisty. “Our two guards, Bryant and Kaden Elmore also got the ball up the court against their press.”
Another pass from Abate; this time to guard Dialo Bryant on a far corner, punched up a three pointer at the halftime buzzer to send the Raiders into the lockers up 29-24. In the third, where Orange Park has had lulls through the season, Abate kept hot with a jumper and dunk to a 33-26 lead before Kadin Elmore and Abate traded three-pointers to blow the game open at 41-30 with three minutes left in the stanza. Palatka kept trying to exert some power with center Mitchell McKinnon and forward Wesley Roberts both trying to blast dunks, but only getting foul shots as the Raiders held a 43-35 lead.
Again, Elmore ended the quarter with a banked three pointer at the buzzer as the Raiders led 48-38 going into the fourth quarter.
“I told them to play to win and not play to lose,” said Kurnitsky. “Stay aggressive and we got a good team effort.”
Another Elmore three opened the fourth quarter and Bryant put on an air show deep under the Palatka defense as Orange Park went to 53-43 with 5:30 to go and Palatka unable to close the gap.
Kurnitsky kept the forward pressure on the Palatka defense until the two minute mark where he put a spread offense on the floor as the game ended at 68-55.
Against St. Augustine on Saturday, a first half score of only 18-12 was a product of a 6-4 first quarter mainly due to fast-paced miscommunications on both sides and missed layups from both teams.
“They played kind of like us in a high-pressure full court defense and lots of runs to the basket,” said Kurnistky. “At the end, we missed too many opportunities to close the game.”
Orange Park was up by as much as 24-19 into the third period, but St. Augustine caught a second win from there and grabbed a 31-26 lead off ballhandling errors against the Yellow Jacket defense.
The Raiders fought back to a 41-38 gap with two minutes left in the game as St. Augustine fell prey to seven team fouls early in the fourth thus giving up bonus free throws to the Raiders, but the Raiders hit the seventh foul at one minute to go to force a change of strategy for Kurnitsky.
A Banks jumper got the score to 41-40, but two foul shots, a missed three by Bryant and a blocked in-bound pass with two seconds ended the game at 43-40. In their opener, Orange Park got an overtime 52-51 win over Matanzas (10-12) with Abate hitting the gamewinner.