For 16 years, the postseason celebrations around Northeast’s campus were muted.
Losers of their share of opening-round state playoff games during the span, the Raiders had given their fans relatively little to be excited about. That’s why the overly gleeful postgame expressions of the couple of hundred people who crowded around Copeland Court on Friday were understandable. Each had just witnessed school history in the making.
The Raiders won their first state playoff game since 1994 when they knocked off Berrien 60-51 in first-round GHSA Class AA action. They will move on to face Laney next week.
“I’m just happy for them,” Northeast head coach Kerry Sandifer said, pointing to his players emerging from their locker room.
Moments before, the first-year head coach received a hug and whisper of well wishes from Bibb County athletics director Raynette Evans, who walked away smiling, remarking how proud she was to finally see the program’s accomplishment.
Indeed, for senior guard Mike Palmer — a two-sport athlete who has been to the state playoffs now seven times as a football quarterback and basketball player — the win was a long time coming.
“I finally got the monkey off my back,” he said. “It feels like somebody took the squat bar off my shoulders.”
While the excitement was obvious when the Raiders emerged from their locker room after the game, a different look filled their faces when they went in at halftime.
Trailing by nine, they were outscored and outrebounded by a Berrien team that seemed poised to send the Raiders to another early postseason exit.
Midway through the second quarter, the Raiders had converted just six of their 21 shots from the field and trailed as the surging Rebels took hold of a 16-point lead.
“We were tight and didn’t execute very well and just got in that hole,” Sandifer said. “I kind of saw a look in their eyes, and I haven’t seen it all year.”
Soon enough that look of worry was replaced, as Northeast began a surge that continued well into the second half.
Exposing fatigue issues that seemed to befall the Rebels, the Raiders opened the final two quarters with a strong pressure defense and a smooth transition offense.
“We knew at the end of the first quarter they were already huffing and puffing,” Palmer said. “(Sandifer) just told us to turn up our defense, and we turned it up as a team. We got all those steals and fastbreaks.
“We get one (fastbreak), we’re pretty hard to stop after that.”
Of Northeast’s 13 total steals, 10 came in the second half.
Immediately following one late third-quarter steal, Palmer lobbed a pass near his hoop that guard Dante Gastin caught with two hands and threw home for a game-changing alley-oop dunk. The score gave Northeast its first lead of the game, pushing the Raiders out front 38-37.
“The big man (Berrien’s Tae Clowers) had started getting winded, and we noticed that he had started walking around in the paint, so we set up a play where I swing it, I catch it and fake it out left to see if he moves. He stepped over a little bit, and Coach told me to put it above the rim and Dante went up and got it,” Palmer said.
On another play in transition in the fourth quarter, Gastin eased his way under the rim for a reverse layup and subsequently made foul shot to help the Raiders pull away for good.
“That’s what Dante normally does. Dunking, stealing, he’s more our energizer player,” Palmer said. “And once the crowd gets behind us, that’s our sixth man.”
Clowers, the “big man” who played well in the post and along the perimeter much of the game, led all scorers with 28 points. At 6-foot-3, he proved difficult to slow down.
“I’ve got one word for him — beast,” Sandifer said. “He can take you outside, inside. He’s tough. He’s a matchup nightmare. We didn’t have anybody big enough. We had (6-foot-7) Denzel (Council) who was tall enough, but not thick enough.”