FORT WALTON BEACH — Josh Williams stood on the right wing, surveying the chaos around him. The ball to his side, his eyes barely moved.
From the sideline, Choctaw coach Andy Thigpen called the play. Choctaw forward Diante Smith said the Indians had installed it a couple weeks before Thursday’s region quarterfinal game in practice. They had been waiting to break it out.
With roughly 90 seconds to play in the first half of a 69-35 running-clock victory against Milton, Thigpen dialed it up.
Choctaw made a mess of the paint, tangling the Panthers in a mass of arms and legs. Smith caught a screen at the top of the arc and rolled to his left. From the wing, he cut to the basket.
Williams was waiting.
“As soon as he went around his man, I seen him open, and I coulda threw it without looking, honestly,” Williams said. “I think I did, too.”
His pass from the right wing rifled high across the court on a line. Using the full length of his 6-foot-6 frame, Smith caught the ball in midair and slammed it through the rim.
“All I knew was I threw it up, and I knew ‘Te Boy was gonna go get it,” Williams said.
After that play and another bucket from Jayden Jones, the Indians (24-2 overall) took a 43-22 lead into the lockers at halftime. They never trailed Thursday, and the alley-oop finish before the halftime buzzer might as well have ended the game.
Smith finished with a game-high 18 points and eight rebounds. Williams had 10 points, four assists and a steal.
Milton snuck into the playoffs despite a 2-8 finish in conference play. The Panthers had little reason to consider the playoffs a possibility before edging past Washington (22-4) in the district semifinal 40-39 to shore up a berth.
The Indians, however, had no plans to overlook what Milton was capable of. After a 17-14 first quarter, Choctaw put its foot on the gas and outscored Milton 26-8 in the second.
“They won some tough games to get into the playoffs,” Smith said. “They deserved it. I’m surprised they were in the playoffs, but they’re a good team. They fought hard.”
After the half, Thigpen began to work in players who normally don’t get regular minutes. After heading to the fourth quarter up 62-29, the lineup consisted of mostly JV call-ups, including Jamil Bowles and Max Keebaugh, who combined for five points in the final 90 seconds.
“Our JV team is very talented,” Thigpen said. “It’s good for them to get some experience in front of the home crowd in a playoff atmosphere. They played hard. All my kids play hard, but they’re buying in to what we’re trying to do right now.”
Even with the inexperienced lineups, Choctaw held Milton (8-19) to just six points in the final frame, though the Panthers also began to sub in backups late, conceding victory.
“It’s always exciting seeing them play,” Williams said. “When Max Keebaugh hit a layup, I was jumping up out of my seat.”
The Indians were well on their way to finishing out the regular season on a 16-game win streak before an 84-79 hiccup against Rutherford in triple-overtime snapped the run at 15 straight games.
Thigpen called it a blessing.
“I feel like things work out for the better,” Thigpen said. “We needed that as a staff. We needed that a basketball team and a program. It was good for us, and I think the kids got refocused.”
The loss seemingly did not derail any of Choctaw's momentum beyond the first quarter of its district championship game against Crestview.
After falling behind 14-7, the Indians throttled the Bulldogs for a 73-61 victory one year after Crestview stole the district crown away from the TeePee. It was Choctaw's third win against Crestview this season.
The Indians will have to play Crestview a fourth time at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the TeePee for a shot at the region finals. The Bulldogs beat Pensacola on the road 71-56 Thursday. It will be difficult, Thigpen said, facing them a fourth time, but for now, he and his team are all smiles.
“Playoffs, you just want to get a win,” Thigpen said. “It feels good. We’ll celebrate a little bit tonight and go ahead and start work on the next one.”