SPRING GROVE — At the beginning of the season, when the Spring Grove boys' basketball team had to reschedule one of its tip-off tournament games against Middletown to later in the season, head coach James Brooks knew that setting it for Wednesday night was going to create one grueling week.
At the time, he didn't know how good the three opponents would be, only that it set up his Rockets with three games in four nights out of the holiday break.
As its turns out, the three teams that Spring Grove is facing this week entered the week with a combined record of 21-1, and two of them were unbeaten.
After the Rockets dropped the first of the three games on Tuesday night to York-Adams League Division I foe Northeastern, it made Wednesday's home tilt against the undefeated Blue Raiders more significant. Trying to find its own footing, Spring Grove couldn't afford to drop two consecutive games against quality teams — the same kind of quality teams it will face in the postseason.
While Brooks would've been happier if his team could've closed out Middletown in stronger fashion, he knows that the end result, a 79-77 home win, was all the counted. His side can take the next 48 hours to regroup.
"It's kind of good that we didn't just rely on Eli (Brooks) to score the buckets and put it away," James Brooks said. "We're a young group outside of him in terms of experience, so it's good that we had to fight and claw back and not give up this 10-point lead that we had like we did against Lancaster Catholic."
Closing out games has been an issue for the Rockets (6-3) this year, and at one point on Wednesday night, they held a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and looked on their way to not only a marquee victory, but a convincing one. Instead, poor free throw shooting down the stretch — the Rockets made just one of their final eight from the stripe — saw Spring Grove's lead almost completely evaporate. The Blue Raiders (6-1) even had a 3-point shot at the buzzer to win it, only to have it clank off the back of the rim, allowing the Rockets to survive.
Still, Spring Grove never trailed in the game and showed some resolve. While the Michigan-bound Eli Brooks poured in a career-high 40 points and grabbed 20 rebounds, it took the rest of the Rockets to pick him up early before he finally found his shooting touch.
Brooks was just 3 of 11 in the opening half, scoring all seven of his points in the first quarter. Held off the score sheet in the second quarter, it was up to someone else on Spring Grove to carry him for a change. That fell on the shoulders of Drew Gordon, who finished with 16 points. None were bigger, however, than the seven he scored in the second quarter, accounting for all but three of the team's points in the frame to help the Rockets maintain a 27-21 lead at the break.
"Eli is definitely the best player on the team, but setting screens and getting him open, coach always says if we get him open, then we're open," Gordon said. "...We've had a couple players who have been stepping up and putting up some numbers in the past few games to help him out and help the team out."
Once Brooks did find his groove coming out of the break, he couldn't be stopped. He made his final nine field goals of the game and personally ended the third quarter on an 11-3 run to grow Spring Grove's lead to 51-41 with eight minutes to play. His dominance carried over into the fourth quarter, scoring 18 points in the frame to build a large enough lead so that the missed free throws down the stretch didn't cost the Rockets a much-needed win.
"My dad was a shooter and he would tell me that you have shooting slumps every once in a while," Brooks said. "You're going to make shots because I know I'm a good shooter, so it's going to fall eventually, so they just tell me to keep shooting."
As a duo, Gordon and Brooks combined to score 25 of Spring Grove's 28 points in the fourth quarter.
Brooks found himself going toe-to-toe with the Blue Raiders' Chris Plummer in the final frame. Plummer, who finished with a team-high 27 points, matched Brooks shot-for-shot in the fourth, scoring 18 points of his own. However, when it came down to it, it wasn't Plummer who got off the final shot for Middletown. Instead, it was Ryan Hughes, who failed to add to his 17 points and end the game as the clock expired.
"This was a big week," Eli said. "We have two division games and we wanted to get Middletown because you don't want to lose any out-of-conference games. ... They came in 6-0, so I think this is a statement win coming back off a loss against Northeastern, proving that we can come back like that."
Eli Brooks said the team's goal entering this week was to win two of the three games. With one game left, the Rockets have a chance to accomplish that.
Awaiting them on Friday night is a home contest vs. another strong Division I outfit in Dallastown. The Wildcats sit at 7-2 overall and are part of a three-way tie for second place in the division, along with Spring Grove and Central York.
York Country Day 90, Fairfield 39: At Fairfield, the Greyhounds cruised behind double-digit scoring efforts from D.J. Hamilton (21), Jordan Ray (19), DeAireus Brown (18), Jalen Gorham (12) and Greg Gladfelter (11). Trystan Griffith had 13 points in a losing effort.
Kennard-Dale 67, Pequea Valley 57: At Fawn Grove, Joey Thomas (19), Donnell Williams (18) and Adam Freese (17) combined for 54 of KD's 67 points in the non-league win. The Rams led at halftime 35-19 and held on for the win.
Hanover 87, Christian School of York 48: At Hanover, Cole Gebhart led the Nighthawks with 19 points. For CSY, Sean Graybill scored 17 points and recorded his 1,000th career point during the game.
Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com.