By REID TUCKER
Walton’s boys basketball team faced an interesting situation when it hosted the Crestview squad lead by several Braves players’ traveling team coach, Ken Meisner.
The coaches and players of both teams knew what to expect from each other, but that familiarity in some ways hurt the Braves (6-0) and the Bulldogs (2-4) alike on the night of Dec. 4. Leading Walton scorers Deshun Tucker and Ken Randolph, both of whom play for Meisner on the AAU Panhandle Select traveling team, struggled from the field and did not match their marks of 20-plus points as they had in previous games. Walton head coach Brad West said his team and Crestview’s were a pretty even match in terms of a play style, so he had praise for his players even if they played a little over their heads to get the 59-50 win.
“[Crestview does] a lot of the same things we do, but we feel like if we are more prepared and if our key players do what they’re supposed to do then we’ll do the same things but do them better,” West said. “They’re probably the best team we’ve played so far, but I don’t think we shot particularly well tonight either.”
Crestview is a young team with a new coach just added within the last month, and the Bulldogs had a hard time coordinating and executing its offensive game-plan. Crestview trailed by a few points most of the night but hanged tough, going blow-for-blow with Walton to make it a four-point game after the third quarter and taking take the lead, however briefly, in the fourth. Nevertheless, when a 3-pointer from Walton’s Randolph started on an 11-point spree in the final minutes it put the game in the books.
“We missed assignments on defense and missed opportunities on the offense,” Meisner said. “We ran our ‘Bulldog’ play exactly one time all night and we got a layup out of it. That comes from kids being selfish sometimes wanting to play outside on the 3. We live and die by the 3. If you’ve got outside shooters you will live and die by it and tonight, unfortunately, we died by it.”
The Braves busted out the gates with a 10-2 lead early, but Crestview reduced that edge to two points with four minutes left in the first period. Walton added another six points in the next 90 seconds thanks to a brace of baskets from the arch by Tucker, but a double successful trip to the strip by Crestview’s Ronnie Baylark get the Dogs in the game, trailing 18-13 with 15 seconds left. Randolph made a free throw to end the quarter 19-13 in the Braves’ favor.
Baylark, who led the Bulldogs with 18 points on the night, had his best quarter in the second, scoring 8 points on his own. Crestview outpointed Walton 16-14 in the period, closing the Braves’ lead to 24-22 at the 4:42 mark, though Shaq Huffman’s six points helped Walton improve to a 31-27 with less than a minute. Both teams hit a shot from the floor apiece before the half for a 33-29 score at the break.
Randolph scored his five points in the third quarter in rapid fashion, leading the way to a 39-29 Braves lead at the onset. Baylark, Ware and Roman Donofrio all scored at least three points to equal Walton’s 11 points, but a couple of Tucker’s trips to the free-throw line helped the Braves keep a 44-40 lead by the end of the period.
The fourth quarter saw the most explosive action by far, as Baylark quickly scored five points, the final three of which was a long-range 3 that gave the Bulldogs ahead for the first time all night: 45-44 with 7:03 still to play. That lead was short-lived though, as Randolph went 2-for-2 at the stripe to give Walton the lead once more just 75 seconds later. Crestivew’s Jonathan Buckelew responded when fouled to give the Okaloosa squad the lead another time. It was then that Randolph drained the fateful 3 that began what was from there out a rout, as Walton added 11 unanswered points to make it 57-47 with 2:42 to go.
Walton slowed the offense and pressed more to eat more of the clock, a strategy that seemed to work as Crestview was only able to score from the foul-line from that point on. The score was 59-50 with less than a minute remaining, and neither team could take advantage, giving Walton the win.
High scorers on the night were Tucker and Baylark, who each scored 18 points for their respective teams. Rudolph scored 17 points for Walton and Huffman turned in 13, while Buckelwe and Ware each contributed 12 points for the Bulldogs.
As for Walton’s West, he said the game proved his team was ready to take on its biggest challenge in the early part of the ’12-’13 schedule: a trip to Marianna High School on Friday.
“We had a two week window to find out what we’re about as a team,” West said. “Tonight showed we can handle some adversity but Friday night is when we’ll find out what we’ve really become.”