Seventh Woods never had a doubt. He was playing.
All the attention Saturday night was supposed to be on the Hammond basketball prodigy’s matchup against Spring Valley’s P.J. Dozier, each a nationally rated recruit. But Woods’ mind was elsewhere, as the junior tragically lost grandparents Helen and Ned Woods less than 24 hours earlier in a house fire.
Yet, there was no hesitation. He would play, and he would play for them.
“Tragedies happen, but you’ve got to play through it,” he said, quietly. “They watched over me this whole game, and that’s the only reason I did it.”
Woods scored a game-high 37 points as the Skyhawks raced past the Vikings, 94-68.
“He’s really close to his family,” coach Mark McClam said. “They were 85, only lived a couple blocks away from his mom and dad’s house. For that kid to come out and put on that kind of performance just shows the resilience of him.”
Dozier could see the performance coming. A pregame conversation between the two close friends proved as much.
“That’s like my little brother, so I definitely tried to talk to him a little bit before the game,” Dozier said. “He responded, which made me feel good, as a player-to-player kind of thing. Just the fact that he can come and perform after something like that, it tells a lot about him.”
Dozier, a South Carolina signee, did his part to keep Spring Valley (4-1) in it. The senior guard finished with 30 points and 17 rebounds, collecting a double-double with two minutes to play in the first half, but found himself outdone by Woods and a host of contributors.
Xavier McDaniel finished with 19 points, and freshman guard Lucas Prickett added 17 – including five 3-pointers – as the Skyhawks raced to a 47-34 halftime advantage that ballooned to over 20 late in the fourth quarter.
“Xavier McDaniel is a big-time player,” McClam said. “He’s one of the best athletes in the state. His game is just emerging and getting better and getting better. He’s sort of one of those late bloomers. And … Prickett, he’s only in the ninth grade. He goes for 17, hits 5 threes. We’ve been waiting on that.”
Yet it was Woods who stole the show. His two-handed slam midway through the second quarter tied the score at 24, before his 3-pointer on the ensuing possession gave Hammond (7-1) a lead it would only build on. He added another triple at the buzzer, then a dunk late in the third that pushed the lead to 19.
“Once I get on the court, the only thing that matters is playing basketball,” he said. “Outside stuff doesn’t really affect me on the court.”
He added a one-handed slam late in the final quarter for an 88-65 advantage, then brought the sold-out crowd to its feet with an alley-oop jam moments later.
“I just had a feeling,’ McClam said. “We executed our stuff perfectly. I’m so proud of our guys. We’ve been struggling with some turnovers and kids kind of doing their own thing sometimes. But, tonight, we just put on a clinic and ran our stuff completely.”
The much-hyped showdown was the first between the two friends, and if Dozier has his way it will be the last. He said he tries to coax Woods into becoming a Gamecock, but time will tell if his recruiting pitch pays off.
Whatever his decision will be, it will not affect the relationship the two have built, which only grew Saturday through Woods’ adversity.
“It was fun playing with somebody I’ve called my brother,” Woods said. “With this atmosphere, it don’t get no better than that.”