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January 3, 2014

Bulldogs hang tough

Teams struggle with nerves at Chesapeake Arena

EMPIRE — Outside a suite in the Chesapeake Arena, an employee asked if the Empire boys basketball team had really gone in the room normally reserved for the richest of Oklahoma City Thunder fans to change.

Sophomore Evan Whit replied, “Yeah, why?”

“Because I already put beer in the fridge,” the employee said concerning the de facto locker room. “Tell them not to open the fridge.”

It didn’t matter if anyone did. The players only had 10 minutes to change, because soon a herd of Thunder faithful would come roaring in for the night’s matchup against the Brooklyn Nets. To which, the Bulldogs and Wilson Eagles had been invited.

That was the surreality for the Bulldogs. They were walking in the steps of basketball superstardom mere hours before those household names took the court themselves. For Empire senior Tanner Ford, it was an unbelievable experience.

“It’s pretty awesome just watching TV and watching them play on it, then you actually get to step on it and see what they’re seeing when they are out there,” Ford said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

With that big stadium looking down on them, the high school players suffered a little bit of stagefright. Bulldog senior Jessica Carney confirmed this after the girls lost 37-31. It was the offense that let the girls down as their defense forced turnovers, but the open shots just wouldn’t fall.

“When we started realizing our shots weren’t falling, I think we got a little nervous,” Carney said. “We just had to bring the intensity up to what we are used to playing.”

The constant yelling from Wilson coach Brian Wingfield, asking his team to find Empire’s shooters, rang throughout the stadium. With the misses piling up, Carney’s group turned to their defense to get them easy fast-break layups off turnovers.

“It was all hustle points,” Carney said. “That’s what we were trying to do. We put a lot of those in.”

The Bulldogs trailed for most of the game, but seized on a late burst to take a 25-24 lead. They weren’t able to score enough, though, and lost the game after winning the fourth quarter 13-12.

The boys game carried some similarities. It was a bigger margin of defeat with Empire losing 62-40, but the male Bulldogs played evenly for most of the game. It was a disastrous second quarter that led to the team’s sixth loss this season.

The Eagles faced their first deficit of the game at 15-14, but rallied to score the next 17 points and close the door on an upset possibility.

“That killed it,” Coach Stefan Hunt said. “That’s pretty much the difference in the game. I told the kids. I said, ‘It only takes half a quarter or one quarter just getting whooped, is the difference in the game.’”

The 22-9 second quarter Wilson domination came just moments after one of Empire’s brightest spots so far this season. The Bulldogs didn’t start well on defense or offense, and it took them until they were trailing 11-1 to make their first field goal. Then the defense stiffened and, all of a sudden, it was 15-14 Empire. Hunt was impressed given all the pressure that comes with playing on an NBA court.

“I knew we wouldn’t have any shots to fall at the beginning, because it’s a different atmosphere,” Hunt said. “The closer you can get to the basket in this game, the better off you will be.”

Staying to watch the Thunder play might have helped some of the players get over the loss. It was clear the game meant a lot to those who participated, but Empire will hope to rebound for its next game, Monday at Walters.

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