Thompson set for bright future despite Sweet 16 loss

Published 4:11 pm Thursday, February 14, 2019

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor 

JACKSONVILLE – There were no expectations for the Thompson Warriors this year. A team that finished with one victory a season ago and hadn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2013 and under a first-year head coach, nobody expected this to be a program shifting season.

But that’s exactly what the 2018-19 season became under Dru Powell, four seniors and a plethora of young talent, despite a difficult 57-47 loss in the Sweet 16 against Huntsville to end their season on Thursday, Feb. 14, inside Pete Mathews Coliseum. 

“I couldn’t be prouder of these guys,” Powell said after the loss. “The way they competed and battled and played all year to win 21 games and get to a regional was just remarkable. It speaks to the kids dedication and willingness to work hard and buy into what we were selling.”

While it was a difficult ending for seniors like Jalen Bustamante, it’s what he and his fellow three seniors did that helped set the standard for the future.

“It was fun,” said Bustamante of his final season with tears filling his eyes. “It was fun being the leader and a great example for the young guys. They have a lot going for them and these next couple years, they’ll use today’s loss as motivation. If they do that, the sky is the limit for them. I loved being with them. It was a great time for me.”

Because of Bustamante’s senior leadership and Powell’s ability to get his team to buy in this year, the future is bright for Thompson, and that’s something that has sophomore guard Grant Hopkins excited.

“This really just builds our confidence and makes us more determined,” Hopkins said. “We got here this season after coming off a one-win season. Now we know we are capable of getting here and we’re willing to work, get better and get back to get better results.” 

The game itself was entertaining and interesting in the first half, as sometimes being better doesn’t necessarily equate to the scoreboard, and that was the case in an odd first half between the two teams.

In the first quarter, Huntsville was the better team early with Thompson looking a little nervous having not played in this big of a game since 2013.

The Panthers were able to take advantage and start the game on a 4-0 run, before Tre Roberson hit Jalen Bustamante on a nice pick and roll to get the Warriors on the scoreboard. That was followed by another layup from Hopkins to even the score early.

Huntsville, however, went up 8-4 and 10-7 shortly after, but each of those leads was answered by back-to-back 3-pointers from AJ Bonham, who dramatically tied the game heading to the second quarter.

The Warriors found themselves in a fortunate tie after turning the ball over three times to Huntsville’s zero, and being out-rebounded on the offensive glass 5-0. Thompson, however, shot better from the field going 4-11 overall and 2-5 from beyond the arc, while the Panthers were 4-18 and 0-9.

Thompson went on to build off of that momentous end to the quarter by taking its first lead of the game at 12-10 early in the second quarter.

Eventually, the Warriors were able to take a 18-13 lead after Roberson blocked a shot on one end and then laid it in on the other end, before Bustamante hit a floater on the next possession.

Huntsville’s shooting woes continued throughout the quarter, but the Panthers were still able to battle back late in the half thanks to some struggles from the field by the Warriors.

A Brad Lewis emphatic put-back dunk was the highlight of the remainder of the period for Thompson, as the Panthers battled back to hit a basket with six seconds left to take a 23-22 lead into the locker room.

Huntsville found themselves in front despite shooting 10-31 from the field and 1-14 from beyond the arc, and Thompson playing a better quarter overall in the quarter.

The Panthers, however, made adjustments and came out determined to make baskets in the second half.

Huntsville sprinted out to an 8-0 run to start the third period, which allowed the Panthers to take 31-22 lead with 3:32 left in the frame.

It also didn’t help that both Lewis and Roberson had picked up their third fouls by that point.

Hopkins did make a basket at one point to end a close to 10-minute scoring drought, before Huntsville took the first double-digit lead of the game shortly after on an alley-oop dunk, which put the Panthers on a 20-4 run.

Lewis made a crucial 3-pointer to end the quarter, which trimmed the Huntsville lead back to eight points at 35-27 to keep Thompson in the game at the break.

“They made an adjustment in the second half and were able to make baskets, and obviously when you can do that, that allow them to set up the press full court,” Powell said. “They gave us a little bit of trouble getting the ball in and we had a tough time handling that run.”

The final quarter opened with the worst possible scenario for Thompson, as the Panthers came out and drained back-to-back 3-pointers to take a quick 41-27 lead.

Thompson eventually fell behind by as many as 15 points after another 3-pointer from John Cole Norris, but the Warriors battled back to within 10 points after Jack Dorolek drained a 3-pointer with 3:28 left.

That was as close as the Warriors got the rest of the game.

Huntsville did everything it needed to in order to close out the game, while Thompson never gave up, diving for balls with 7.7 seconds left, to keep the final score at 10 points in a 57-47 victory for the Panthers.

Thompson was led by Hopkins with 10 points in the game, while Bustamante and Bonham both had eight. Bustamante also added 10 rebounds in his final game, while Hopkins posted seven.

For the game, the Warriors shot 19-58 from the field, 4-17 from beyond the arc and 5-12 from the free throw line. Thompson actually out-rebounded Huntsville 43-36 and forced one more turnover, but couldn’t overcome the 32.8-percent shooting from the field, as the Panthers shot 43.5 percent from the field.

It was a tough way for the Warriors’ special season to end, but Lewis, a sophomore had a message that this team is already looking forward to.

“We’ll be back next year,” he said.

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