GRANITEVILLE — In the first game of the Aiken County Challenge Christmas Tournament at Midland Valley High School, the host team found itself in a low-scoring battle with an undefeated Batesburg-Leesville squad. Both teams used half-court traps to break their rival’s rhythm and a deliberate half-court approach when they escaped the pressure.

Trailing midway through the third quarter, Mustangs head coach Mark Snelgrove – who’s serving double-duty this week as the organizer of the three-day tournament – made an adjustment to his defense. He had his players employ full-court pressure and switch to man-to-man. The move paid off as his squad outscored the Panthers 20-6 the rest of the way in a 52-40 win.

“Playing at 4 p.m. made me nervous,” Snelgrove said of playing the first of four games Thursday. “We didn’t have our normal lead-in, and we were lethargic. But we’ve developed a bad habit of playing mediocre in the first half of games.”

The Mustangs (8-4) weren’t very crisp with their offensive execution in the first half, trailing 24-23 after 16 minutes of action.

But the switch to the press not only created some easy scoring opportunities via turnovers, it also got Midland Valley playing at a greater pace that translated into a good rhythm with the ball.

Against most opponents, Midland Valley doesn’t fare well playing man-to-man because their guards are so small.

Their height disadvantage worked in their favor against Batesburg-Leesville, as diminutive players like Latrell Lee and Jaquan Hall were able to unnerve opponents with their speed and aggressive pursuit of the ball.

Without worries of being dominated by a bigger team, Snelgrove was able to put a versatile lineup on the floor. While not overly tall, the group that included Lee, Hall, Daniel Carr, Djuan Green and Kameron Brown – who scored a game-best 13 points – gave Midland Valley a distinct advantage in handling the ball and ability to execute the press.

“It’s our best five for defensive quickness. I’m comfortable with all five guys handling the ball,” Snelgrove said, adding that this group was especially effective at running the Mustangs’ motion offense that was similar to the old four corners to kill the clock at the end of the game after they’d rallied and built a double-digit lead. “We’ve got five or six guys you can pass the ball to without worrying. They can handle the ball.”

Another factor that made a difference in the second half – especially the game-closing run – was the fine play of Javoddis Coach. The Mustang center is usually outsized by most opponents, but that wasn’t the case Thursday. He was able to operate more comfortably in the low block and provided an outlet for teammates to pass to after they broke past perimeter defense. Coach, who finished with 10 points that all came in the second half, also extended possessions by using his length to tip the ball and grab a rebound or get it to a teammate for a second-chance scoring opportunity.

“He’s getting better at using his body,” Snelgrove said of Coach. “It seemed like he caught everything that was thrown to him and got points around the basket.”

With the win, Midland Valley will advance to the winner’s bracket in the Aiken County Challenge. Snelgrove won’t have to worry about an early start for today’s game against Wagener-Salley, which beat Hepzibah on a last-second shot. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., or roughly 15 minutes after the conclusion of the South Aiken vs. Lakeside game.

Snelgrove said he’s hoping that three games in three days will help prepare his team for the rigors of region play. He got to see how his team fared in certain situations Thursday, and he knows there’s room for improvement – especially in a specific part of the game.

“These guys do want to win,” Snelgrove said, “I just wish they wanted to in the first half.”

BL 10 14 10 6 – 40

MV 11 12 15 14 – 52

Batesburg-Leesville (6-1)—Jocqui Merritt 2 0-0 4, Ty Jones 2 1-5 5, Sammie Gilliam 3 0-0 6, Juwan Etheredge 1 4-4 6, Jerrad Hall 5 0-0 11, Ray Norris 2 0-0 4, Chris Turner 1 0-0 2, Ben Williams 1 0-0 2. Totals: 17 5-9 40.

3-Pointers: Hall.

Midland Valley (8-4)—Daniel Carr 4 1-2 9, Jaquan Hall 2 0-0 5, Latrell Lee 2 0-0 6, Jaysen Jones 2 1-1 5, Kameron Brown 4 5-6 13, Djuan Green 1 2-4 4, Javoddis Coach 3 4-4 10. Totals: 18 13-17 52.

3-Pointers: Lee (2), Hall.

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.

At a glance

(All games at Midland Valley High School)

Thursday’s Results

• Midland Valley 52, Batesburg-Leesville 40

• Wagener-Salley 44, Hepzibah 43

• Strom Thurmond 50, South Aiken 45

• Silver Bluff 70, Lakeside 50

Today’s Games

• Batesburg-Leesville vs. Hepzibah, 4 p.m.

• South Aiken vs. Lakeside, 5:30 p.m.

• Midland Valley vs. Wagener-Salley, 7 p.m.

• Strom Thurmond vs. Silver Bluff, 8:30 p.m.