The Lakers' defeat of The First Academy and the Panthers' wins over Oak Ridge and Melbourne last week should bolster both squads' confidence as district tournaments loom.
It was a non-district game that wasn’t even on the schedule originally, but the Jan. 13 contest between Windermere Prep and The First Academy was a big deal — even if there are no real implications from the Lakers’ 64-60 victory in front of a capacity crowd.
I should follow that with a disclaimer: Yes, I’m aware Windermere Prep did fall to the The Master’s Academy a few days later, 83-74, in a televised game — and then again to Rickards, 67-65.
That, though, doesn’t take much away from the significance of the victory over the Royals for the Lakers.
The significance is that, after Windermere Prep (18-3) fell to The First Academy four times last season — including in a district championship game and in a regional playoff contest that ended the Lakers’ season — they finally got over the hump. Windermere Prep did so in a playoff-esque atmosphere in front of one of the largest home crowds in program history.
It did so with one of its best players dealing with what may have been one of the most hostile environments of his young career, too. Yes, the contest was a home game, but fans of the Royals travel well, and one corner of the court was blanketed by TFA students who echoed a chorus of “traitor, traitor” every time David Nickelberry — who transferred to the Lakers last summer from the Royals — touched the ball.
Nickelberry scored a game-high 21 points, anyway. Teammates Parker Davis and Xion Golding chipped in with 19 and 11 points, respectively, and Golding hit two free throws in the closing moments to seal the victory. Through all of it, coach Ben Wilson’s squad showed poise and maturity.
“We’re just different across the board,” Wilson said afterward, reflecting on the difference a season can make. “We’re just better across the board.”
Of course, the Lakers weren’t the only team covered by the Windermere Observer that had a good week. Somehow, coach Anthony Long’s Panthers keep trending upward — even with two significant senior departures from the roster.
Keyed by senior Justin Tucker and junior Nick Smith, Dr. Phillips boys hoops picked up two huge wins last week. The Panthers (17-4) defeated Oak Ridge Jan. 12, 80-75, and Melbourne Jan. 16, 80-74, in a game that was televised.
For some added perspective, Oak Ridge is the third-ranked team in the state in Class 8A, and Melbourne is the top-ranked team in the state in Class 7A and also was undefeated at the time.
Heading into the weekend, the Panthers will have four more tuneups left before the district tournament begins. With a 23rd consecutive 20-win season in sight, Long’s underclassmen-heavy squad may be one of the region’s most pleasant surprises — one that may not be done surprising yet, either.