FORT WALTON BEACH — The short minutes sandwiched between the end of regulation and overtime are critical.
After battling for 32 minutes — several of them a mad scramble toward the end — it’s a time to get your legs back under you, a time to make adjustments and a time for encouragement.
No. 3 Choctaw welcomed a heavy dose of the latter in Thursday night’s narrow 48-42 victory against No. 6 Orange Park in the opening round of the Region 1-5A playoffs at the TeePee.
"Coach (Andy Thigpen) had full confidence in us," senior captain CJ Matthews said. "We all had full confidence, so we knew. He said, ‘Let’s just go get this in overtime. Let’s go get this dub, and let’s go home.’"
With little fanfare, that’s exactly what Choctaw (22-6) did. Matthews scored just eight points all night on 2-of-9 shooting, but six came in overtime, including a patient 3-pointer on the Indians’ opening possession for a 40-37 lead.
"That’s leadership," Thigpen said. "CJ’s been doing that all year long. He’s hit some big shots for us in several games, and he’s just a leader."
So is co-captain Torrion McGowan.
The senior guard finished with a team-best 13 points and iced the game with four free throws in the final 30 seconds. McGowan was 9-of-10 from the charity stripe on the night.
Late heroics aside, Orange Park (15-11), ranked 23rd in Class 5A by MaxPreps, gave the Indians plenty of reason to sweat.
The Raiders opened the game on a 7-0 run, using a deliberate approach that slowed down Choctaw’s typically free-flowing, transition offense. After winning the opening tip, their first shot didn’t go up until 80 seconds had already drained off the clock.
Having scored at least 60 points in each of their previous 12 games, the Indians were on pace for just 28 points at halftime and trailed 15-14.
"They were slowing it up," Thigpen said. "We can play slow and fast, and I told my kids at halftime that if we can’t get the tempo we want, we just have to beat them at their game."
Out of the break, the pace picked up and Choctaw, ranked eighth in Class 5A, bludgeoned the Raiders from beyond the arc. Juniors Jamil Bowles, Roland Clay and Isaiah Bledsoe each drained a 3-pointer, building a 30-23 lead at the end of the third.
That lead grew to 10 early in the fourth quarter behind five points from junior Javaris Young before Orange Park finally cracked the Indians’ pressure defense. Choctaw scored just two points — both critical free throws by way of McGowan — in the final 5:44 of regulation before finding its second wind in overtime.
"We still gotta get a little smarter," Thigpen said. "But I’m just proud of the kids for listening. They were tired and they were just grinding to get that win."
That grind now continues at 7 p.m. Tuesday against No. 2 Rickards on the road in Tallahassee.
Ranked fourth overall in Class 5A, Rickards blasted Westside 80-44 on Thursday night in the Region 1-5A quarterfinals and claimed the District 2-5A championship this past Saturday with a 65-44 victory against Mosley. Senior Zackary White had 24 points in the latter victory, while teammate Ke’Varius Taylor posted 23 points.
Choctaw squared off with the Raiders in December at the EC16 Tournament in Niceville, falling 80-69. Matthews had a game-high 23 points.
"They’re pretty good," he said. "They’re really athletic and they come to play, but as long as we do what we need to do, I think we can get the dub."