Revenge is sweet and payback’s a…nother thing altogether. The Smyrna varsity basketball team dropped Indian River in an 80-71 season-opener conference loss, but on Jan. 10, the Indians shot down the Eagles 69-63 for sole possession of first place in the Southern Henlopen Conference.
Smyrna’s head coach, Kyle Gebhart, said he expected a “dog-fight” in the rematch and that’s exactly what he got. Emotions ran high but were contained and the referees let them play.
The game couldn’t have been capped any better than with one of Jeremy Purnell’s four dunks. Purnell dominated the paint for 14 points on 7-14 shooting, 17 rebounds (nine offensive and seven of which were collected in second half) and five blocks that kept Smyrna out of the lane and beyond the arch for much of the night.
“They kept driving to the hole to try to foul me out, so I just kept my mind on the game and made them take tough shots,” explained Purnell. “This was an awesome win for us. And it feels so good to step up and to be in first place now.”
Indian River started off slowly but extended their lead to 31-15 at the end of the first half because of sloppy shooting. Smyrna only made five shots on 21 attempts for a dismal 24 percent field-goal percentage, and it didn’t matter where they put them up. Smyrna missed nine shots in the paint and seven jump shots (six three-pointers) but Indian River didn’t shoot much better.
The Indians and primarily guard Brian Bell struggled from the field as well. Bell mustered 10 first-half points on 4-11 shooting from the field, but it was his tenacity in the paint that gave Indian River the edge. Despite not shooting well, Bell led his team with five offensive rebounds in the first half, which resulted in second-chance points.
“That’s the thing about Brian — is that he plays hard whether we’re ahead or behind,” said Head Coach Pat Kelly.
“Even though Brian didn’t have his best game, it still helps us out, because it frees me up on the baseline and then you have J.P (Purnell) in the paint,” said Travis Irving. “Everybody isn’t always going to play their best game, so someone else has to step up when they’re down.”
Irving was second on the team in the first half with nine of his 14 points and definitely benefited from the defensive convergence on Bell. He hit two of four three-pointers and on the last attempt converted a four-point play.
Smyrna guards Kevin Johnson and Darnell Cephas were limited to only nine points combined (five and four, respectively).
Indian River kept the Eagles at arm’s length in the third quarter due to some timely free-throw shooting by guard Curtis Chandler. He hit nine of 10 free throws and finished the night 11-15 from the charity stripe with a team-high 21 points.
Chandler saved the Indians and scored 13 of his 21 points in the third quarter. It couldn’t have come at a better time, because Cephas and Johnson were both heating up and leading a rally.
Smyrna’s top scorers accounted for 15 of their 21 third-quarter points and shot a healthy 66 percent (4-6) from beyond the arch.
“Curt gets that demeanor that nobody is going stop him,” said Kelly. “It’s nice to see.”
Chandler torched Delmar for 23 of his 26 points in the second half in their 66-61 victory on Jan. 5. Chandler hit only one of four shots, for a three-pointer, but kicked his game into high gear to pick up where fellow scorer Bell left off.
“I just didn’t want to lose,” Chandler said of the Delmar win. “I only had three points in the first half so I did all I could do to help us win.”
Bell scored seven first-half points on 3-12 shooting and only one of four from the free-throw line. He added six more in the second half, for a total of 13 points on 6-16 shooting, though he did tie Purnell with a team-high 11 rebounds (four offensive).
Indian River’s win over Delmar was close throughout. But the Smyrna game was in the Indians’ hands the entire game.
Indian River played great first-half defense but began to give way in the second half — most notably in the fourth quarter.
Cephas scored five straight baskets in the paint to cut the lead to five points, but they would go no further.
“I told Kyle (Gebhart, Smyrna head coach) before the game that it was going to come down to the last few minutes,” said Kelly. “They have some good athletes that don’t give up.”
Indian River will continue conference action on Jan. 13 when they travel to Milford and will then host Polytech on Jan. 17. Both games start at 7:15 p.m. Indian River will delve deep into the northern region of the conference on Jan. 20 when they take on Cape Henlopen and then travel to Sussex Tech and Sussex Central on Jan. 17 and 20, for arguably their toughest stretch of the year.
“The north is really going to be a challenge,” said Kelly. “This is a big win in the South, but the important thing is for them not lose sight of their conference goals.”