By Thomas Sellers Jr.
For the past 3 months Tipton-Rosemark Academy athlete AJ Hightower has been busy as the starting quarterback for the Rebels guiding the team to a 6-5 record and playoff appearance.
On Veteran’s Day Hightower found himself in a basketball uniform preparing to come off the bench for new Rebel Head Coach David Hunt. And things weren’t going so well for Hunt’s TRA debut in the school’s gymnasium against the visiting Northpoint Trojans.
The Trojans were ahead 14-6 after one quarter when Hunt summoned Hightower off the bench. In his new role as a reserve, Hightower gave TRA a much needed boost with 8 points in the second quarter.
The hot play was contagious for Hightower’s teammates leading to the Rebels pulling away for a 62-49 victory in Hunt’s debut.
“First of all, No. 24 for them, he’s one heck of a player,” Hunt said of Northpoint guard Bailey Smith. “He probably had 30. We did everything to stop him and we still couldn’t stop him. I have to give him a lot of credit.
“In the second half, a lot of the seniors stepped up,” he added. “Conner Sanders hit some big threes. Nathan Whitley D’d up and got into No. 24 and I think we wore him down toward the end. Of course AJ Hightower who has had one practice comes in and steps in like it was natural. He was great. That’s a big win without Logan Stewart playing. Some of the guys didn’t have their best game, but we made plays when it counted to pull out the win.”
Hightower led TRA with 20 points off the bench. Smith led the way for the Trojans with 31 points.
The Northpoint sharpshooter drained a couple of three-pointers in the first quarter to help the Trojans build the early advantage.
Down 14-6, Hightower got TRA rolling by hitting a trey of his own. A few second later Hightower drove to the rim for a bucket and a foul. His three-point play made the score 14-12.
TRA kept the score close the remainder of the first half with buckets from Hightower, Ryan Duffy and Shelden Spence. The tally was 25-23 in favor of the Trojans at the break.
Smith kept Northpoint ahead early in the third quarter hitting three-pointers. Another Smith triple made the score 31-27 in favor of the Trojans.
TRA responded with a 10-5 run to close out the period and take the lead for the first time all night. Duffy started the rally with a layup and Sanders added a basket in the lane.
Then TRA guard Johnie “Basketball” Sanfratello broke down the Trojan defense to create enough space in the lane for a floater to make the score 34-33 in favor of Northpoint.
That set the table for the TRA spark plug Hightower. The junior forward stepped into a passing lane to make a steal. Racing to the basket, Hightower went up for layup to give TRA the 35-34 advantage.
After Northpoint regained the lead for a moment, Hightower scored on an inbound play to give TRA a 37-36 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
In the beginning of the final quarter Northpoint took a 38-37 advantage. Rebel Nathan Whitley drove to the rim for a layup to regain the lead for TRA for good.
Sanders contributed with a pair of three-pointers and a layup to build the TRA lead. Late in the fourth quarter Sanders hit a floater of his own to make the score 57-47. Sanders and Hightower closed out the victory down the stretch with foul shots.
Sanders had 14 points in the win and Duffy reached double figures with 12. The clutch play of the Rebels calmed their coach down and gave him a 1-0 start at his new school.
“I was nervous, to be honest I was nervous all week,” Hunt acknowledged. “Hack, I’ve been nervous all year. I couldn’t be more proud of the guys. They played their hearts out and stepped up when we needed it.
“It feels great to get a win, any win is great,” he concluded. “We’ll go in there and we’ll learn from the mistakes we did. We’ll learn for the good thing