By Rob Witham
“A rivalry game like this? This is something I could only dream of. It was a great game, with great energy and a lot of fun.”
The words of Hanover boys basketball forward Ryan Payne on the court just moments after his Hawks knocked off perhaps their biggest rival, the Atlee Raiders, on Atlee’s home floor, spoiling “Silent Night” for the Raiders with a 64-55 victory to end a disappointing week on a very high note.
After a win at Dinwiddie got away from them Monday, and a loss to Highland Springs after that, Hanover was desperate to turn the season around at this, the halfway point. To do it, the Hawks would have to shine in enemy territory, the “Rage Cage” student section filled for the home Raiders, beginning the game completely still, until, in good “Silent Night” tradition, their team scored their 10th point of the game.
After that? Delirium, as Atlee battled the visiting “Hawk’s Nest” student section from Hanover just as vociferously as the teams did on the floor during the game.
For Atlee, it was a chance for a much-needed win, a chance to finally jump start a struggling offense that only put up 23 points in a loss to fifth-ranked Varina earlier in the week. A fast paced first quarter saw Atlee take an 18-15 advantage, but the Raiders only scored two points in the first four minutes of the second quarter.
Jaylin Ross stole the ball, drew a foul and made a free throw to tie the game at 20-20 at 3:40 left in the half. Then, both teams went cold. Hanover would score the only two points in the final minutes of the first half for a 22-20 lead at the break.
In the second half, Carson Miller tied things up with a layup to even the score at 25. But, over the next 2:29 of play, Hanover would roll up 11 straight points to get the first double-digit advantage by either team in the game at 36-25.
Atlee scored two quick baskets after the timeout, but, in the final minute of the third quarter, a Hanover steal at midcourt was quickly passed to Josh Plummer, who, rather than go in for the layup, distinctively knew Payne was coming behind him. Plummer passed the ball off the backboard, and Payne flew through the lane to seize the ball and slam it through the hoop, sending the Hawk’s Nest into a frenzy, and quieting the big Atlee Silent Night crowd. It was 41-29 Hanover with a quarter to go.
“It looked like he was going up for just a normal layup, so I was following, hoping he would miss it long so I could try to do something like that,” Payne said, recalling his dunk. “But he through the pass, and it was right there, it was a great pass.
The Raiders (1-10) were not done. Down by 16 points with 3:44 left, Hanover was assessed a technical foul after a Hawk foul on a Raider shot attempt. Leo Reynolds hit three of four free throws, then Tyler Warren nailed a trey, and Atlee was within 10 at 50-40 with 3:16 remaining.
In the next 68 seconds, Atlee slashed the lead to a mere four, as Reynolds launched, and hit, a three-pointer from 30 feet out to make it a 54-50 game.
Enter Nik Morrison, the Hanover point guard who didn’t score from the field, but collected all eight of his points at the free throw line, including make four consecutive shots to up Hanover lead to 58-50 with just under a minute left. Reynolds would be fouled shooting a three-pointer, making all three free throws to cut the deficit to 58-53, but fantastic free throw shooting down the stretch gave Hanover the 64-55 win to improve to 4-8.
“He’s our best free throw shooter,” Hanover head coach Darren Thornton said of Morrison. “He’s a 90 plus percent shooter, and excellent shooter. Even though he didn’t take the field goals, we keep fussing at him to shoot the ball, shoot the ball, because he can shoot the lights out of it.”
“Nik played huge,” Payne explained. “Some nights he doesn’t score field goals, but we can always count on him to be strong with the ball and just finish a game like that.”
Certainly it was Payne’s offensive explosion that helped the Hawks put Morrison in a position to seal the victory at the line. Payne finished with 30 points, 12 in the first half and 18 in the second, with the unique ability to drive the lane, using his size to create plays or to clean up misses. But he is just as comfortable to line up from 24 feet and earn three points at a time.
Atlee can take solace in its comeback attempt, its improved scoring ability, and a never-say-die attitude. Reynolds led the Raiders with 18 points, 16 of them coming in the second half. Tyler Warren had 11 points and some impressive blocks, including one where the ball sailed out of bounds into the Atlee band. Only a freshman, the sky is the limit for Warren.
The third of six county “Rivalry Nights” this Friday pits Atlee hosting Patrick Henry and Lee-Davis hosting Hanover for varsity doubleheaders. The girls games begin at 6 p.m. followed by the boys at 7:30 p.m.