FORT WALTON BEACH – Momentum in basketball can be huge.
In Friday night’s district finale between Fort Walton Beach and Choctaw, both the Vikings and Indians took turns with momentum on their side, as the two teams each made big runs in front of a standing-room only crowd.
Ultimately, the Vikings made the one that mattered most.
After Choctaw opened the game on a 27-14 scoring binge, the Vikings used a 16-0 spurt midway through the cross-town matchup to take control on the way to a 74-61 victory.
“They made shots early, but our guys didn’t panic,” said Fort Walton Beach head coach John Lavin, whose team finished off a sweep of the regular-season series. “Defensively, we played pretty well for 32 minutes, it’s just that they were making everything early on. I thought we wore them down as the night went on.”
The Indians couldn’t miss early, riding Bryan Baker’s hot hand to a lead that reached 13 points on two occasions in the first half. Baker, Choctaw’s 6-foot-6 senior forward, scored 19 first-half points on the way to a season-high 24.
“Bryan does so many good things for us,” said Choctaw head coach Andy Thigpen. “He’s mentally tough, and he’s a guy that gives you everything he has. He was good tonight.”
Baker’s first-half explosion included three of five shooting from three-point range, where the Indians connected on five of nine shooting in the first two quarters.
Near the end of the half, however, the Vikings made their move, finishing the half on an 8-0 run to cut Choctaw’s lead to 31-29 at the break.
“We got away from what we were doing to build that lead,” said Thigpen. “When that happened, our shot selection went down and we let them back in it. We have got to become more mentally tough so we can learn to bounce back when things don’t go our way.”
The Vikings opened the second half just like they finished the first, ripping off an 8-0 run to take a 37-31 lead.
John Egbunu, FWB’s 7-foot center, scored 17 of his team-high 23 points in the second half, and sent the visiting FWB fans into a frenzy with a rim-rattling dunk that gave the Vikings a 57-47 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Egbunu also grabbed nine rebounds.
“John played well, really let the game come to him,” said Lavin. “I thought our guards did an excellent job getting him the ball and dealing with their pressure. In the second half, we made some adjustments defensively and were able to slow Baker down, which helped.”
Egbunu’s 23 led a quarter of Vikings in double-digits, as Tyrone Culbreth and Blake James each added 13, while Drew Davis contributed 11 points. The Vikings (14-6, 7-1 in District 2-6A) will enter the district tournament as the top seed, and will play the winner of Mosley-Niceville. That tournament will be held at The Arena on the campus of Northwest Florida State College.
For Choctaw (15-9, 4-4), Thomas Clay scored 11 points, and Dylan Williams posted eight points and 11 boards. The Indians will face No. 3 Crestview in the 2-6A tourney.