RED SPRINGS — Whether he’s snatching rebounds, diving on loose balls, or powering his way to the basket, Eric Graham is relentless on the basketball court.
That effort was on full display Thursday night as Graham sparked the Red Springs boys basketball team in a 56-33 rout of St. Pauls, finishing with 15 points and nine rebounds.
Leading by as many as 24 points in the game, Graham set the tone early for the Red Devils (10-8, 5-3 TRC), scoring the first six points of the contest to spark a 19-3 run to open the first half. Red Springs never looked back.
“I’m glad he’s on my team,” Red Springs coach Glenn Patterson said of Graham. “He’s the guy you need to do the little things. His play gives us an edge.”
For Graham, it’s all about igniting the play of his teammates.
“When I’m out there (on the court), I’m always trying to give it my all because if I don’t, the team won’t,” Graham said. “I can’t slack. I’m trying to go 100 percent because I know my teammates will keep the momentum going.”
Often criticized for wearing his emotions on his sleeves, Graham thrives in the role. With the Red Devils leading 42-30 late in the fourth quarter, Graham ignited a quick 7-0 spurt, throwing down a dunk and flexing toward the Red Springs bench as he sprinted back down the court.
It’s something Patterson loves about the 6-foot-3, 205-pounder.
“Buddy (Graham) plays with passion and he loves the game,” Patterson added. “People think he’s talking to them, but he’s motivating himself. He wants to win.”
While Graham did all of his damage in the paint, Caleel Mitchell set the tone from the behind the arch, scoring a game-high 22 points, including six 3-pointers. The sophomore hit four of the six in the second half, giving Red Springs its biggest lead of the game at 56-32 with under a minute to play.
“We had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Patterson said. “We felt like we didn’t give our best performance at St. Pauls. Tonight we had a total effort.”
Defensively, Red Springs used a 3-2 matchup zone to stifle the Bulldogs (13-4, 5-3), holding them to single-digit scoring frames in three of four quarters.
“I thought we couldn’t play them man-to-man, so I put in a matchup zone and it went well,” Patterson said. “We got off to a slow start, but once we started rolling, everything was clicking.”
Zeke Sansbury scored nine points to lead the Bulldogs, but St. Pauls struggled from the outside throughout the night, finishing with no 3-point field goals and their lowest scoring output of the season.
“There was a lid on our side,” St. Pauls coach Matt Hill said. “I hope the kids bounce back, but their attitudes tonight are not what I’m used to seeing. You could see a little quit in their eyes.”
St. Pauls would cut the lead to nine several times in the second half, but the Red Devils kept them at bay, knocking down key jumpers to swell the lead back to double digits. It’s the fourth loss in six games for the Bulldogs.
“They (Red Springs) just played tougher than us,” Hill said. “They wanted it more.”
While not producing much in the scoring column, Tavion Atkinson and Monte’ Wilkerson contributed in other ways to help the Red Devils maintain their edge.
Atkinson grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds to go with six steals and six blocks. Wilkerson dished out a team-best six assists.
“We just played together,” Patterson said. “I hope that’s an indication of how we’ll continue to play. We’re peaking at the right time.”
In a sloppy first half, the Red Devils carried a 24-11 lead into the locker rooms. Red Springs returns to action Tuesday at East Columbus. The Bulldogs travel to South Robeson on Monday.
Red Springs girls fend off St. Pauls
A night after claiming a one-point road win at South Robeson, the Red Springs girls basketball team withstood a battle from rival St. Pauls to claim a 39-27 win at home.
Sha’nia Leach stuffed the stat sheet for the Lady Red Devils, scoring eight points, grabbing five rebounds, dishing out five assists and nabbing six steals. Destiny Hardin scored seven points to lead the Lady Bulldogs.
Kelsey Locklear scored a game-best 11 points, with Taya Jones adding nine with a trio of 3-pointers. Jones hit two 3s in the final quarter to give Red Springs some breathing room.
Leading 15-12 at halftime, the Red Devils outscored the visitors 24-15 after the break to widen the margin.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.