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COLLEGE PARK (GA) – Sometimes basketball games shift in the other direction after halftime. The Woodward Academy War Eagles benefited from this change in momentum.
Led by 7-foot junior Walker Kessler, who collected 27 points (16 in the second half), 12 rebounds, eight blocks and four assists, the War Eagles overcame a halftime deficit to defeat Druid Hills at home on January 11.
Michael Whitmore handed out six assists, Logan Stephens scored eight points and Will Demorest added seven for Woodward, which won its fourth straight game.
Even though Kessler scored more points than anyone on the floor, he consistently made the right decision with the basketball and didn’t force shots. Kessler also blocked or contested every shot within reach, truly displaying what the term ‘rim protector’ is supposed to look like.
“I can’t say enough about the kid,” said Woodward Academy coach Anthony Thomas of Kessler. “It doesn’t get talked about enough, you see the gaudy stats but the most impressive thing about him is that he is probably the most unselfish player on the team. Even with all of the accolades and attention he is going to find the right man. He is going to make the right pass 10 times out of 10 and that is what he did tonight. That is why he is a good leader because he is humble and the guys really gather around him and make sure he does well.”
Early in the third quarter, Kessler slammed home a missed shot to not just move the War Eagles (11-7, 7-2) within four points but spark a game-changing run.
After Kessler found Demorest for a jumper then 3-pointer, Woodward jumped back ahead 31-30 with 4:43 left in the frame. Maliek Sadler, who led the Red Devils with 20 points, split a pair of free throws to even the score but Whitmore found Donte Bush for a 3-pointer and Kessler for a jumpshot, resulting in a 36-31 score.
“This was one of his best efforts–he is still growing,” said Thomas of his junior point guard Whitmore. “When he locks in he can be one of the better guards in the state. It is just a matter of being consistent and tonight it was on display. He got everybody involved. He was solid defensively. He was vocal inside of the huddle and on the floor–that kind of leadership will help us down the road.”
“He’s probably the best point guard I’ve ever played with, counting AAU and All=Star games,” said Kessler of Whitmore. “It makes me a better player and our team better.”
Stephens capped the 14-1 run with a layup before the War Eagles entered the final period ahead by nine.
“Our execution got better the whole game,” Whitmore said. “I feel like in the third quarter we didn’t try to do too much. We just stayed with what we knew and got the ball in to Walker. When they doubled down we made the extra pass and played as a team.”
Druid Hills crept back within six at the midway point of the fourth but Kessler converted a jumper and dunk to rebuild the lead back to 52-42, and Woodward ran away with the game from there.
“I just think we wanted it more tonight honestly,” Kessler said. “In the first half we came out kind of slow and in the second half we said let’s get down to business and let’s beat this team.”
In the first half, the Red Devils had a sweep of the season series in mind especially Sadler, who made four 3-pointers in the first quarter. Druid Hills led by 11 early in the second period before Woodward cut the margin to 26-22 heading into halftime.
“He really came out and shot the ball really well,” said Thomas of Sadler. “We knew he could make shots but tonight he was on another level. We had to make sure we switched up things and identified him in transition and in half court. Luckily we were able to do that. He is a great shooter. We got to keep that under our hat in case we see him again.”
Jaylen Smith scored 12 points for Druid Hills.