BRYAN — The Rudder Rangers weren’t going to watch another loss to the top-ranked University from afar.
By getting close, the Rangers made it close. They took the ball to the hoop, despite hitting a wall in the form of Jibrael Washington, who blocked four blocked shot in the first two minutes of the second quarter.
Washington helped block Rudder’s comeback effort with two free throws with 22.7 seconds left and Trojans clinched the first-place playoff spot from District 18-5A with a 62-58 victory at The Armory.
“When we played them there, we didn’t get anything on the inside,” Rudder coach Eric Jackson said. “We had to try to force the issue on the inside and get some fouls, an so we could get some easy baskets.”
Not may came easy, though, in a gritty, hard-fought defensive game that saw the Rangers rally from a 12-point deficit early in the third quarter to take a 41-40 lead with 1:27 left. The comeback produced crowd-pleasing plays with Jaqwan Washington nailing a 3-pointer, Ladarius Johnson cutting the lead to one by grabbing and offensive board and scoring and Washington’s go-ahead shot.
The Trojans moved back in front with a pair of free throws from Justin Williams, the southpaw shooter, who was eight for eight from the free throw line and score 12 before fouling out late. He finished with 12 points. After a steal, Umoja Gibson’s gliding bucket ended the quarter with University in front, 44-41.
Rudder closed the lead to two on four occasions, including an impressive coast-to-coast drive from 6-4 junior forward Antoine Henderson, but University pushed the lead to 57-51 when Antoine Hailey dunked after a steal.
The ball-handling skills of Tim Wilkinson, who also drew an offensive foul, and fellow guard Gibson, helped keep the ball away from Rudder, although Korbin Cunningham’s pull-up 3-pointer cut it to 57-54.
Wilkinson sank three of four free throws in the final 1:07, which actually dropped University off its game average at the line. The Trojans connected on 28 of 32 free shots.
Rudder (24-7, 6-4 in 18-5A) fell a half-game out of second place behind A&M Consolidated, which did not play Friday. The win locked up district’s first-place playoff spot and at least a share of the title for the Trojans (23-8, 9-0).
“We came out and played,” Jackson said. “It’s unfortunate the ball didn’t bounce our way and a couple of times on some loose balls and some rebounds, but I thought they came out and gave a good effort.”
University’s Gibson scored 10 points and handed out an assist in the first quarter on his way to a game-high 18.
Rudder, which played much like a younger version of University with their high-pressure style on both ends, hung close when Cunningham scored with five seconds left in the quarter. He had 11 in the game, but Johnson, who led the Rangers with 13, was the catalyst for keeping the game within Rudder’s reach in the second quarter. Henderson scored eight of his 12 in the fourth period.
Rudder will bid for second place, playing at A&M Consolidated Tuesday. University hosts Waco High.