TALLAHASSEE — Roland Clay’s swing pass found Amarion Pettis wide open in the left corner.
A junior on the Choctaw basketball team, Pettis rose and fired just as he had done so many times before this season, and the ball glided effortlessly — mercifully — through its nylon target. Pettis’ expression didn’t change, and Rickards’ home crowd didn’t get any quieter.
It was Choctaw’s first made field goal of the night. With just 43 seconds left in the first quarter, it was the only one the Indians made in the opening period and one of just three they would make in the first half of Tuesday’s 79-52 Region 1-5A semifinal loss to the Raiders.
Choctaw trailed 40-14 at halftime.
“We just couldn’t hit shots,” Choctaw coach Andy Thigpen said. “We had some good looks, we had some opportunities and it just didn’t fall the way we wanted. When you do that, you get away from the gameplan trying to get some things rolling on the offensive end.”
Eventually, those shots started to fall. Choctaw scored 17 points in the third quarter — even trimming the deficit to 18 points with an early 9-0 run — and 21 in the fourth, but by then it was too little, too late.
“We just had to put four quarters together,” Thigpen said. “You gotta play a full game in the playoffs, and our kids played hard for a half. We definitely could have played with them guys, but everything happens for a reason.
“I’m proud of my kids for how far we’ve grown this season, the district championship and the Sweet 16. We did accomplish some good things. Losing’s not fun, but you try and hope that they grow up in life and these are life lessons that they learn.”
Senior point guard Torrion McGowan scored a team-high 14 points with four rebounds and an assist, while Pettis scored 13 with three rebounds on 6-of-10 shooting. Senior guard CJ Matthews had eight points, two rebounds and two steals.
Meanwhile, senior Ke'Varius Taylor and junior Khamari McGriff led Rickards (18-7) with 17 points apiece, while senior Zackary White chipped in 15.
Ranked fourth overall in Class 5A, the Raiders shot a blistering 74.35% from the field and made 7-of-11 3-pointers. Choctaw shot just 36% and made 2-of-16 3’s.
The loss was the Indians’ second of the year to Rickards, which beat Choctaw 80-69 this past December at the EC16 Tournament in Niceville. Matthews had a game-high 23 points.
If there is a silver lining to Tuesday’s loss, it’s that Choctaw managed to win 22 games with just two seniors — McGowan and Matthews — contributing major minutes.
The talented trio of juniors Jamil Bowles, Ezra McKenna and Pettis, which combined to average 32.5 points, 11.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists this season, is expected to return and anchor the Indians in 2021.
“We talked about that,” Thigpen said. “We had 10 guys that really had never been in the playoffs, playing minutes in the playoffs. It’s a different vibe in the playoffs. It’s a different feel, and the kids got that experience now.
“We should have a good core group coming back next year.”