Airport went into Tuesday night’s game with Strom Thurmond as a big factor in the Region 5-3A boys basketball race.
A game out of first with four games remaining, the Eagles had the top two teams in the standings — the Rebels and Midland Valley — coming to their place in that span.
Step one in that process didn’t turn out so well as Dequarius Johnson scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half to lead Strom Thurmond to a 54-43 victory.
“Mathematically, we aren’t out of it, but realistically, it’s Thurmond’s to lose now,” Airport coach Jimmy Kinard said. “A win tonight would have put us in a good situation. Right now, I just hope we can bounce back and get over this one to secure a playoff berth.”
Kinard felt like the game got away in the first half despite the Eagles holding a 19-18 lead at intermission. Airport (12-9, 4-3) was a woeful 6-for-28 from the field. The Eagles were 2-for-14 from the field in the first quarter and 4-for-14 in the second.
Their lead came from 7-of-10 free-throw shooting, and the fact the Rebels (15-6, 6-1) were almost as bad from the field. Strom Thurmond finished the half 8-for-27, and closed the gap with the final six points of the half.
“We were up one at halftime and really should have built more of a cushion,” Kinard said. “You have to credit Strom Thurmond. They are on the road, down at the half and their kids made basketball plays when they had to have them and our group didn’t.”
Strom Thurmond coach Bo Rouse kept his team in the locker room for a couple of minutes before returning them to the court. Whatever message he delivered in his short halftime speech must have found its mark.
“Nice, sweet, short and simple,” Rouse said of his speech. “I can’t tell you what I told them, but evidently it worked.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, started the second half with a 3-pointer. He would add two more 3s in the quarter, and Hakeem Brooks would add another as the Rebels found their shooting stroke by hitting 7-of-15 from the field.
Johnson had 11 points in the third period that saw the Rebels outscore Airport 18-8. Both coaches agreed that is was Johnson’s play in the second half that turned out to be the difference.
Airport got down by as many as 12 points in the fourth quarter but kept fighting back. Quan Bovain hit a 3-pointer with 1:31 remaining to trim the deficit to five. The Rebels missed the front end of a one-and-one to give the Eagles the ball with a chance to make it a one possession game, but they missed a short layup and were whistled for an intentional foul with 1:12 remaining.
That possession turned into four points for Strom Thurmond.
Manny Polston scored 19 points, and Forrest Arnold added 12 to lead Airport. It finished 15-of-56 from the field.