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Savion Staton and his Sandhills Community College teammates find themselves in a league of their own as far as college basketball is concerned for the 2019-20 season.
With the frustration and agony surrounding the cancellation of March Madness due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Staton and his Flyer teammates can lay claim to the only national championship decided on a court in Rochester, Minnesota.
Winning three games in 48 hours as the National Junior College Athletic Association scrambled to get its Division III championship decided, the Flyers finished off a historic 34-2 campaign by holding off Mohawk Valley Community College 93-89 in the finals, contested on March 13. That was actually the second win of the day for Sandhills, which had to prevail in the semifinals earlier that day against host Rochester Community and Technical College. Bolstered by key stops on the defensive end in the semis, Staton, a product of SouthWest Edgecombe High, and his teammates reached the finals with an 84-76 win — the second national championship for the Flyers and the first since 2012.
The NJCAA Div. I and II tournaments could not be completed before COVID-19 precautions intervened and sent everyone home.
“We were really supposed to play Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” Staton said in a telephone interview Friday. “But we played one game on Thursday, and they switched both (semifinal and championship) games to Friday. We played an earlier game on Friday, and later that afternoon, played another game. We basically played three games in 48 hours!”
Staton was no ordinary contributor for Sandhills on its journey to a national championship. In the finals against Mohawk Community College out of Utica, New York, Staton’s 3-pointer with 2:43 remaining put the Flyers up for good. He had 12 points and three rebounds in 16 minutes coming off the bench in a sixth-man role, a move made after he opened the season as a starter.
“It showed how tough we were as a team,” Staton said of winning three games in a short time span. “It showed, with three games in 48 hours, how much we were in shape.”
Staton was in the starting lineup for the season’s first 15 games, with 14 of those being victories. But start No. 15, a 96-86 loss at home to USC Salkehatchie, prompted a reshuffling of Staton’s role with the Flyers. In 20 minutes in the first of just two Sandhills losses, Staton was 1 of 6 from the floor in 20 minutes and misfired on all five of his 3-point attempts — a misaligned cog in a Flyers’ offense that ultimately averaged 103.6 points per game in leading all of NJCAA Div. III.
“That’s when I started coming off the bench,” Staton said. “I actually started playing better off the bench, because I was struggling at the beginning of the season. But my team kept my head up. And then, when I started coming off the bench, I started playing better. I accepted the role.”
Staton, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound guard, became the spark for the second unit in what became a high-octane attack for Sandhills, averaging 9.8 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per contest. His 3 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio was second on the Flyers. Substitution patterns involved waves playing for a few minutes at a time before leaving the game and quickly returning just minutes later.
Against the host Yellow Jackets in the semifinals, Sandhills went down 67-66 with 4:51 remaining. But the Flyers took the lead just 19 seconds later, and held Rochester without a field goal over the next four-plus minutes to pull away for an 84-76 decision and reach the finals.
“That was my happiest moment,” Staton said of his on-court exploits.
Coupling with Keishon Porter — who became the first SouthWest boys player to sign an NCAA Division I scholarship by signing with Radford — a next-level renaissance is underway in Pinetops. Zach Sledge, a senior off the 2019-20 Cougars roster, will join Staton with the Flyers next season.
“Before us, there was not too many people that played basketball at SouthWest and went to college,” Staton said. “Now that I went to college and Keishon is going to Radford, there’s other people on the team like Zach, he’s coming to Sandhills next year. Dorien (Ruffin), he’s got an offer from other JUCOs. I think in a couple years, Zay Mayo, he should have an offer. I feel like we’re building a basketball program at SouthWest Edgecombe. We’re mostly known for football, I think. We’re putting basketball on the map moreso at SouthWest.
Staton, who had to hunker down on his off-the-ball mechanics like setting screens and defending after leaving SouthWest as its dictator of pace, doesn’t hold any offers heading to his sophomore season of junior-college basketball.
“I’m very proud of my team,” Staton said. “We started out 16-0 (actually 14-0) and we lost a tough game to a (NJCAA) D-I school. We ended up losing another tough game to another D-I school. Then we went on a what, 16-game win streak including a national championship?”
Actually, it was an 18-game winning streak. But when you’re the sole national champions of 2019-20, mathematics can take a back seat once in a while.