Live Oak looks to regain form as title chase continues

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Acorns junior Thomas Edwards has been a driving force this season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

J.T. Carvalho refused to settle for the outside shot. Even though the junior has a sound shooting stroke, the junior forward stayed aggressive and repeatedly attacked the basket in the Acorns’ 66-54 win over host Lincoln High in a Jan. 22 Blossom Valley League West Valley Division game. Carvalho scored a game-high 29 points, coming off a performance in which he scored 26 in a 69-43 victory over Mount Pleasant.

“Lately my approach going into a game is to come out more aggressive,” he said. “It’s just having a different mindset on offense.”

Carvalho’s dribble-drive success pleased Acorns coach Randy Bartholomew, who always wants to see his players play with a controlled aggression in all phases of the game, especially when it comes to taking it to the basket.

“I had been telling J.T. to be a little more aggressive offensively, to get buckets around the hoop instead of settling for jump shots,” Bartholomew said. “Credit to him for putting that right in his game tonight.”

The Acorns had a goal to win their first league championship in 22 years this season, but that task got more difficult after they lost to Del Mar 77-70 on Tuesday night. Live Oak will probably have to run the table to erase the school’s long title drought in boys basketball.

Carvalho tries not to think about leading the team to a league championship and breaking the school’s long title drought. If he did think about it everyday, he would go crazy. 

“I really try not to think about it,” he said. “I try to play it like this is every other season like I’ve had in the past. It’s a goal for sure and something that you have in the back of your mind, but I don’t let those thoughts control me. I just go about and do the things I need to do day to day.”

When the Acorns are at their best, they’re playing lockdown defense, driving to the basket and scoring in transition. Few players in the league—including the ones in the Mount Hamilton and Santa Teresa Divisions—run the floor more effectively than Connor Ghione, who scored nine of his 11 points in the fourth quarter against Lincoln. When Live Oak pushes the ball up the floor and picks up the pace, Ghione puts himself in favorable scoring positions. Ghione has a lot of versatility to his game, as the Lincoln contest attests.

He takes huge steps without traveling, though Bartholomew said sometimes the referees call him for traveling because it doesn’t seem possible that someone can get to the basket from the elbow area or 3-point line in two steps. But that’s exactly what Ghione did in the opening minute of the fourth quarter when he had the ball behind the arc on the left side before taking two large steps and elevating for a running lay-in. 

“The kids call him unicorn because he can do everything,” Bartholomew said. “We put him in the post today for the first time, and he worked well out of the post. Bringing him off the bench is something that has been great for us this year, and a key for us as a team.”

Said Carvalho: “Connor does that all the time, and the refs call him for traveling a lot because they can’t believe someone can get to the basket in two steps from that far out. I believe he could get down the full court in four dribbles; that kid can move.”

The Acorns received a huge boost from another reserve in junior guard Thaddeus Dickens, whose play proved to be infectious to the team from an energy standpoint. From a vocal standpoint, the players in the first half were somewhat subdued; however, they were downright excited in the second half, clapping and patting each other on the back while keeping the noise level up. 

“When Thaddeus came in, he got us going defensively with his pressure on the ball and getting steals and creating turnovers,” Bartholomew said. “If I had a game ball to give, it would go to Thaddeus. He really got us going in the second half, particularly the last four minutes of the third quarter and first six minutes of the fourth quarter—that was all Thaddeus. He got us going and kept us going. He’s done that in a couple of games this year, where I’ve put him in and told him to go pressure the ball. I tell him this is what I want you to do, and he gets it done.”

Carvalho said he wasn’t surprised that Ghione and Dickens played well against Lincoln. After all, he had already seen it in the summer when the three along with Edwards played together on the same AAU team, Top Flight Elite. 

“We knew coming into the season Connor and Thaddeus would be two of the rocks on the team,” Carvalho said. “We’ve got a lot of rock-solid players on this team, which is nice. Tommy and I played AAU with Connor and Thaddeus, and they performed well. We all grew as players, saw a lot of high talent and developed good chemistry coming out of the AAU season. There was never a doubt in my mind that Thaddeus and Connor could perform the way they did (against Lincoln).”

Carvalho, who went 10-of-14 from the free throw line, didn’t just have a one-track mindset when he repeatedly drove to the basket. On several occasions he made passes that led to baskets, including one to Gus Giba that went for a layup after Carvalho had dribbled the length of the floor. The Acorns had a battle on their hands for longer than they probably expected. They led 29-26 at halftime after Lincoln closed the second quarter on a 10-2 run. 

The game was close until Live Oak went on a 12-0 spurt to close the third quarter. Up to that point, Lincoln answered every Live Oak run and for a brief time looked as if it could overtake the Acorns. Carvalho was proud of how the team responded after opening division play with four straight blowout wins, all by a whopping 26 points or more. Live Oak needed to be tested before its showdown with Del Mar. 

“I feel like this was a pivotal moment in the season where we really had to get hit and realize that we’re not going to run over every single team in the first or second quarter,” he said. “I feel more proud of the team in a game like this because it could’ve gone south really quick. Some teams don’t react well when they get hit, but even though we realized this was going to be difficult, we were put on the spot and responded pretty well.”

Carvalho was 9-of-15 (60 percent) from the floor, making for an excellent shooting game. Thomas Edwards shot only 5-of-16 from the floor en route to 12 points, but he’s capable of getting hot on a moment’s notice and has proven to be a solid scoring threat. Edwards can light it up from 3-point range, but also has the ability to get to the basket off dribble penetration. 

No matter what happens the rest of the way, the Acorns’ 48-43 win over crosstown rival Sobrato High on Dec. 27 will be one of the top highlights of the season. This victory was especially rewarding since the Bulldogs are competing in the BVAL’s A division, the Mount Hamilton, this season. 

“Playing Sobrato is the single biggest game every year,” Carvalho said. “It doesn’t matter what league they’re in and what league we’re in, it’s going to be a fight because we both want bragging rights in this town.”