Savion Staton almost didn’t have a chance to make a difference in a national championship game.
It didn’t take long for plans aimed at slowing the increasing spread of the coronavirus to take aim at sporting events and the mass of humanity they attract. Professional, collegiate and high school sports were shut down in what felt like a whirlwind of fresh reality.
The high school state basketball tournament date came and went without a champion, nor a clear picture of whether or not those games will be played at all. Plenty of events are still floating aimlessly.
But what did slink in as the window slammed shut was the NJCAA men’s basketball Division III national tournament championship game, where on March 13 SouthWest Edgecombe grad Staton and his Sandhills Community College teammates earned the program’s first national title since 2012.
Staton, a redshirt guard, hit a 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter to put his team ahead for good in the 93-89 win over Mohawk Valley in Minnesota. It was the second victory for the Flyers that day, as Sandhills CC defeated tournament-host Rochester in the semifinal earlier in the day.
The tournament played both the semifinal round and the national title game on the same day in order to beat the virus-induced shutdowns.
“The last time I did something like that was probably during AAU back in high school,” Staton said of playing two games in one day. “It was a little tiring because we only had like two or three hours of rest between games.”
Staton earned regular playing time this season after spending much of his true freshman year learning the game as a redshirt. During that season, Staton said he grew accustomed to the speed and play style of the college game. The former point guard explained that most of his on-court education was learning how to play without the ball.
“In high school I had the ball in my hands every play so I was controlling the game,” said Staton, who led the Cougars as a senior in 2018 with 20.9 points per game. “In college, I don’t do that so I had to learn how to move without the ball.”
He also soaked up experiences, like when he traveled with the Flyers to the national tournament last season where they were knocked out of title contention in the first round. They finished fifth.e
Sandhills (34-2) came back strong. The Flyers were ranked as the nation’s top team over the final 12 regular season polls, and earned a first-round bye in the national tournament.
Staton started the first 15 games of this season before transitioning to a reserve where he was efficient as a scorer off the bench. By the end of the season, Staton had the third-highest scoring average on the team at 9.8 points per game. He also had averages of 3.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
His scoring presence was much-needed during the national title run, especially on the tournament’s final day. Elijah Idlett, the Flyers’ second-leading scorer, picked up three fouls in the first half of the semifinal game against Rochester.
Idlett spent much of the first half on the bench, which sent Staton into action.
“I was kind of down at the beginning of the season, and Elijah kept my head up the whole time,” Staton said. “He got in foul trouble early in the game and he was on the bench. So we had our second-leading scorer out and I knew how bad he wanted to be in there, so I wanted to play hard for him.”
Staton played 24 minutes and scored a team-high 16 points to lead the Flyers in the 84-76 semifinal win. And he wasn’t done yet. The former Cougars standout added 12 points in the title game, including six fortune-changing points and a title-clinching steal over the game’s final four minutes.
Staton connected on a 3-pointer with 4:05 remaining to even the score at 83-83.
Then, with 2:43 left, Staton buried another 3 to put the Flyers up for good at 88-86. He added a late steal, which led to free throws with 5.3 seconds left that capped the win.
“It felt really good,” Staton said. “It was nice to play well, and it was a good season. It was fun being ranked No. 1, and it brought a lot of attention to our school. Our games got more and more packed later in the season when we were winning.”
Up next for Staton is some time off.
He said his college is staying closed for two weeks, and then will learn if his classes will be pushed to online only. Staton said Flyers coach Mike Apple planned to give the team two weeks off after the season anyway, but the week’s after is anyone’s guess.
“After that, I don’t know,” Staton said. “Us players might play some pickup games, but we’ll see.”