NORTH AUGUSTA — There was a big-time showdown on Tuesday at the Nike Nationals. The morning session at Riverview Park Activities Center featured a matchup of undefeated Elite Youth Basketball League teams, as Tennessee Flight faced off against the Carolina Flames – the de facto hometown team.


Although only two players on the Flames’ roster hail from South Carolina – Orangeburg-Wilkinson’s Dejoria Howard and Lower Richland’s Dejah Kelley – they bore the mantle of local representative. No squads from either side of the CSRA qualified for this year’s Nike Nationals.


“It’s not too bad, but it’s still a trip,” said Arne Morris, Carolina Flames head coach. “It’s not as bad as playing on the West Coast.”


In spite of that mantle, a pair of impressive wins on the first day of the tournament and an early lead, Carolina had its hands full against a very good opponent. It was the second meeting this summer for the all-star girls’ squads, and a pivotal rematch as Tennessee looked to avenge a loss on its home court and stake claim to supremacy in Pool D.


In a back-and-forth game that wasn’t decided until the final seconds of overtime, the Flight eked out a 73-71 win over the Flames.


That put them in the drivers’ seat to advance to the eight-team bracket that will determine the EYBL champions.


Although Morris said he was confident his squad would bounce back and position itself for one of the two berths out of Pool D into the championship bracket, he didn’t want to lose the game. Down by two points with 16 seconds remaining in overtime, the play Morris designed was broken up and Rydeiah Rogers was forced to launch a desperation shot with time winding down. It clanged off the backboard, but as the buzzer sounded Grace Hunter flipped the ball back up and through the hoop. It was waved off, and despite Morris’ protests, the shot was ruled to come after time had expired.


“It should have been a double overtime game,” Morris said since the officials didn’t immediately make the call, but he reasoned that there wouldn’t be another extra session as tournament officials wanted to avoid falling behind schedule. “That was one of the toughest teams we’ve played all summer. We know we can beat them.”


Tennessee’s Alexandria Johnson scored a game-best 20 points while teammate Kaylan Pugh had 18 points and 22 rebounds. Hunter led the Flames with 16 points, one of four Carolina players to score in double figures. Point guard Kaila Ealey had 15 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals, while Rogers added 14 points and Amber Richardson posted a dozen.


It’s a credit to Carolina that the game was so close since it was forced to go most of the way without one of its best players. Howard is an elite scorer, but is recovering from a severely sprained ankle. She was limited to five minutes of court time in Tuesday’s loss. All of her action was in the first half, finishing with three points and a rebound.


But Morris didn’t call on Howard in the second half, especially down the stretch when he could’ve used her scoring touch. The Flames were at their best on offense when they got the ball in the paint – scoring off the dribble, passing to the low post or feeding players slashing along the baseline. As the game wore on, the Flames seemed to be running out of gas as several shots fell short and many more were blocked as the players seemed to lack late explosion to evade the Tennessee defense.


Although Howard wasn’t able to be a difference maker against the Flight, she could be a factor before all is said and done this week in North Augusta.


“This was my first time playing since the ankle injury, so it was good to help out a little,” said Howard, who enjoys competing with the best players in the nation at her age level – having previously played with Carolina in tournaments in Tennessee, Washington D.C. and Atlanta among other locations. “It’s different competition, better exposure and different girls which is better for me and allows me to work on my game. … Orangeburg-Wilkinson has had talent for years, and playing here makes me better,” said the rising senior who added one of her goals is to win another state championship with the Bruinettes.


Morris thinks a title could be in her immediate future.


“We’ve got a good chance. Once you’re in the final eight, anything can happen. These are all great teams with great players,” Morris said, pointing out that Howard certainly belongs in that company. “We miss her offense. She’s a great offensive player. She’s got skills, can shoot and can handle. She does a lot of great things.”


Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.