Tijan Singhateh connected on one of two free throws with 3.7 seconds remaining as Wylie hung on to defeat Rockwall 44-43 in the bi-district round of the state playoffs.
Wylie (12-2, 24-10) led by double digits on two occasions, but head coach Stephen Pearce knew playing Rockwall (9-3, 18-15) would come down to the wire. The victory avenged Wylie’s loss in the bi-district round last season.
“We knew every game with them was a battle,” Pearce said. “We led from start to finish, but we knew whether we were down or up 10, it was going to be close. They tried to get into the post a lot and we found a way to grind it out and battle it out.”
The Pirates jumped out to an early lead in the first quarter, frustrating the Yellowjackets offense and contesting several jump shots. Singhateh was a focal point of the Wylie defense, but after getting in early foul trouble, the Pirates looked to the bench.
“It was next man up from there,” Pearce said. “Sometimes it meant smaller guards getting stuck on some of their better post players and they came in, battled and communicated on defense.”
With Singhateh on the bench, the seniors stepped up for the Pirates. Gesi Jituboh came off the bench and had several key blocks and steals off entry passes to limit the Yellowjacket’s chances inside.
Fellow senior Messay Gharbin also went up a level, forcing several deflections and steals with his work ethic on the defensive end. He also chipped in offensively, leading all scorers with 12 points and the Pirates leading 29-22 at the break.
“They did a great job with energy and enthusiasm,” Pearce said. “They knew anytime they stepped on the court, it could be their last time on the floor. Messay did a good job on offense and hit some shots, but I was just proud of how those two battled.”
It was a stark contrast to earlier in the season, when Wylie lost to Rockwall 65-49 in non-district competition on Dec. 7. Knowing the outside shooting the Yellowjackets had, coach Pearce wanted to ensure the Pirates could close out on any jump shot and help a little less inside than usual. Part of that success came from denying entry passes into the post for Rockwall’s offense, as they liked to set up opportunities from inside.
The game plan worked well in long stretches as Rockwall struggled to connect from the floor. The Yellowjackets had eight field goals over the second and third quarters combined and Gharbin and Jituboh combined for several blocks in the paint during that span.
“We changed the way we guarded a little bit,” Pearce said. “Part of our game plan was to make their drivers think we were closing out and then contain the drive and stay home on their defense.”
With the victory, Wylie advances to the area championship round at a later date. They’ll play the winner of DeSoto and Belton, who play Tuesday night, at a time and date to be determined.
Wylie played DeSoto earlier in the season in a non-district tournament and lost 51-48 after leading the majority of the game. With that experience under their belt, they know it’s nothing but difficult tests ahead going forward.
“We know no matter who we play, it’s going to be a completely different game plan,” Pearce said. “Not many teams shoot the ball quite like Rockwall and when teams play differently, you have to defend differently.”
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By Kyle Grondin • firstname.lastname@example.org