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Firebirds Get First Win of the Season, 125-109

After a disappointing home opener loss against the Carolina Coyotes, the Firebirds came roaring back with a 125-109 victory over the Tallahassee Southern Kings. Unlike on March 4th, when the Firebirds couldn't get any momentum going for them, the game started out close and stayed close. I knew that something great was going to happen early on, as in warmups, Desmond Jackson did something that only a few players in basketball history have ever done; after dunking the ball, the ball flew upward out of the net and came through the hoop again. While this only counts as one bucket, I think it should count as 4 points, given how difficult it is to do. The dunk looked something like this, except that it went in afterwards instead of rimming out. Either way, it was just the start of a great game.

The starting five for the Firebirds was the same with the exception of the point guard spot, with Marques Sumner replacing Brock Young. Daequon Antoine, Darius Leonard, Desmond Jackson, and Kenny Collins were the other starters. The Kings put the first points on the board, making it 3-0, but Antoine quickly responded with a three, making the score 3-3. It was clear from the opening tip that the Firebirds' energy was different than their first game of the season, as it appears they are shaking off the rust. While the rebounding effort needed some work at first, the hustle was there, and the shots were falling too. With 6 minutes and 15 seconds left in the first quarter, the score was 16-16. Then, Sumner got hit in the face for the first time, drawing a foul. It's become a recurring theme to watch Sumner get hit in horrible places and draw fouls, and so I started keeping track.

Both teams pressured the opposing point guard as they brought the ball up the floor, never giving more than a foot of space. However, this never resulted in turnovers, as both teams had great ball handlers. At the end of the first quarter, the Firebirds were up 26-22.

In the second quarter, it was Antoine, not Sumner, who got hit in the eye. Sumner wasn't done for the night though; he would get hit with 9:45 left in the half, his second time getting hit in the game, and the fifth time this season. He was slower to get up, but kept playing. After a few nice plays from different guys on the Firebirds, Sumner got tied up in mid-air, and was knocked over again (if you're keeping track at home, that's his 3rd time of the game, and the 6th time this season). This play happened with 4:41 left on the clock, and around a minute later, with 3:52 left, Marques was hit again, and drew another foul (4th time this game, 7th total on the season). "There is an art to it," said Sumner about drawing fouls. "At the end of the game I was telling my guys, 'You just got to be strong with the ball, because as the game gets towards the end, and you know it's win or lose, guys start to pressure more on the ball, so you got to be strong with it. And I think the stronger that you are with the ball, the more guys get antsy and start reaching and stuff. As long as you're strong with it, they have no choice but to foul you. Nobody's going to take the ball from me."

Marques was great at drawing fouls, and at halftime, the score was 56-45 in favor of the Firebirds. However, Sumner's shot just wasn't falling in the first half, as he only had seven points. However, this would change, as Sumner scored 11 points in the third. The reason he cited the change was Brock Young, who scored 32 points against the Coyotes. Despite receiving a DNP on the night, Young gave Sumner some good advice. "He told me to take my time on my shot, that I was rushing my shot, so I took that with me into the third quarter, and just took a little bit more time to focus on the rim and my form, and it started falling for me."

Sumner wasn't the only one having a good game; at halftime, Leonard had 14 points and 7 rebounds, prompting him to say, "I'm a walking double double." He made good on his promise, as he finished the game with 16 points and 11 rebounds, his second double double in two games. Getting the rebounds for a double double isn't easy, as Leonard said, "When you're a big in this league, we only send 3 {Small Forward}, 4{Power Forward}, 5{Center}, out to the glass; they send out all five, so you're going to have two guys boxing you out. It's tough to get a double double with two guys on you, but somehow I do it." Jackson, the other big man, would finish the game with 10 rebounds, and blocked three shots in the first half.

To start the third quarter, Sumner hit multiple shots in a row, and the Firebirds' lead grew as large as 20 points. However, midway through the third quarter, Sumner went up for a three and all of a sudden the ball flew out of his hands. "The ball was a little bit slippery," he said. "You know it touches so many hands during the game, so it was slippery. I was actually about to pull up in transition for a three and then the ball just slipped out of my hands, but it happens." The Firebirds continued with the hustle and defense, and although their lead slipped a little bit, it was 84-71 at the end of the third quarter. Sumner would finish the game with 27 points, 8 assists, and 5 rebounds, shooting 50% from three and 44% from the field.

In the fourth quarter, the game became close again, as the Kings poured on the pressure to try and claw their way back. Sumner still played a huge role in the game, but the King of the 4th Quarter was Kenny Collins. At the beginning of the 4th quarter, Collins got the ball, pump faked, and nailed a three. From there, he got an easy layup in transition, making the score 89-75. Another three followed, and then another. The entire team would get fired up by Collins' shooting, making many of their own. Collins pulled up deep from three, a heat check shot.

Nothing but net.

The crowd went crazy, and Collins made one final three, his fifth in the quarter. He would finish with 17 fourth-quarter points, as the 100 or so fans in person and 125 on livestream got to see a show. Collins shot 8 for 15 from three (53.3%), and 12 for 19 from the field (63.2%). "Probably not," said Collins when asked if it was his best fourth quarter as a Firebird. "But it's up there." With the Firebirds' amazing scoring, they pulled away from the Kings, with the final score 125-109. There was a different set of refs this time, and while there were calls at times that both teams didn't like, the game was called evenly. The Firebirds ended up with 20 personal fouls and 19 fouls drawn, while the Southern Kings committed 19 personal fouls and drew 20 of them.

"It feels great to get a win, a much needed win," said Leonard postgame.

All in all, this was a great start to the season. The Firebirds roster is so deep that guys can go off on any night, even when some of the team's best players don't play a single minute of the game. Every player can have a huge impact on the game, which makes this team so scary. They have everything; chemistry, scoring, defense, passing, and possibly the most important, charisma. All of Raleigh should be proud of this team, as the Firebirds are becoming must-watch basketball.

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