BRIDGEWATER — Call it a guilty pleasure or, maybe, it’s just plain cruel.
But when Tyler Nickel steps on the basketball court, he isn’t necessarily there to make friends or build camaraderie with the opposing team. In fact, the East Rockingham junior said it’s the exact opposite situation on the hardwood.
“I love competition,” said the 6-foot-8 guard that is considered one of the top prospects in the country for his class. “When the game is tight and people start getting confidence and you hit a few shots, you see all the energy drain out of the other team. That gives me energy because I know however hype they just got, I just took it away from them.”
Nickel did just that on Wednesday, answering every Turner Ashby run with an impressive spurt of his own en route to a 42-point performance as the Eagles led from start to finish in a 73-62 win in boys basketball action in Bridgewater.
“He has that sense when he needs to be even more aggressive,” East Rock coach Carey Keyes said. “I thought he did that tonight. They made a run and then we made a run with him really in attack mode. It’s nice having that, obviously.”
On paper the matchup between the Knights and Eagles looked like a mismatch with unbeaten East Rockingham coming in with back-to-back wins over Spotswood and Broadway while Turner Ashby was winless entering the game.
Coming off a loss to Wilson Memorial earlier this week — one that saw the Knights blow a 20-point second-half lead — first-year Turner Ashby coach Brandon Shields said it would have been easy for his squad to be demoralized.
“We came to practice yesterday and we got after, worked hard,” said TA guard Tyson Snow, who finished with 17 points. “We came out tonight and we competed. We just worked hard and we were in the game the entire time. Tyler made some tough shots, but we just competed the whole game and it fell their way. I think we did enough to win tonight. We could get a little more aggressive on defense, but [East Rock] just found a way to win tonight.”
East Rock jumped out to an early lead and went up by as many as seven early in the second quarter on a bucket from Nickel, but the Knights used a quick-hitting, fast-paced offensive attack to go on a series of runs and stay in the game.
“That was the main focus of the scouting report,” said Nickel, who also had six rebounds. “They can get hot out of nowhere and they’re going to run the floor and get up quick shots. If you’re not locked in and getting back, they’re going to hit shots and go on runs. We saw what could happen and they did exactly what [Keyes] said could happen.”
Just before the half, a 3 from Snow followed by a transition bucket from Jacob Keplinger evened the score at 26.
Fittingly, Nickel responded with a 3 on the opposing end to help spark a 10-2 run and put EHRS up 36-28 at half.
“They’re difficult to guard because they’ve got three or four shooters at all spots on the floor — guards and bigs — so matchup wise, it’s hard,” Keyes said. “If you’re not locked in and ready to guard, they’re going to beat you. They drive downhill really hard and they do a great job of sharing the ball. I thought they played great. I give them credit.”
The two teams continued exchanging buckets into the third, although TA never took a lead or tied the game, but the momentum of the contest shifted after back-to-back buckets from Snow cut the East Rockingham lead to 45-43.
Nickel answered with back-to-back 3s and scored eight of the Eagles’ next 10 points to give ERHS a 55-43 advantage with just over four minutes remaining in the fourth. The Knights never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
“You have to give Tyler so much attention that it leaves the other 6-foot-7 guy open on the perimeter, which leaves the backside open,” Shields said of East Rock’s offense. “It’s a conundrum for everybody. [Nickel] is a heck of a player, obviously. I thought, given our personnel, we did all we could do. We just don’t have a guy with that size and that strength. We tried to crowd him a little bit, but he can get his shot whenever he wants and that’s the way he does.”
Six different players got in the scoring column for well-balanced Turner Ashby (0-4) in the loss. Garret Spruhan led the way with 18 points while Snow finished with 17, Noah Gerber added 10 and Keplinger chipped in with nine.
“It’s real fun when you can just be aggressive on offense,” Snow said. “My teammates all do a good job of driving and kicking, getting everyone involved. It could be anybody’s night any night. We’re just trying to stay aggressive on offense.. … We have to put it together for an entire game. We have to put it all together to get a win.”
Despite remaining winless, Shields said he liked what he saw out of his team as he continues to rebuild the program.
“I thought the character of our team really showed tonight,” Shields said. “We have senior leaders, guys who believe in what we’re trying to build here. I’m telling you they’re doing everything they can, given the circumstances we’re in right now. It’s a learning curve for us right now. We’re still building this thing. … We’re really figuring things out as we go.”
Nickel’s 42-point outburst against the Knights on Wednesday was just three shy of his career-high of 45 that he set last season. Through three games this season, the four-star prospect is averaging 32.3 points per game.
“I realized I wasn’t really doing what I could have in the beginning and I realized what I could exploit them at,” Nickel said about his performance. “I just tried to expose that later in the game by just taking advantage of open spots, not overthinking and letting the game come to me. For whatever reason, I was a little tight at the beginning of the game. I just had to shake it off. I ended up just getting more and more comfortable as we went along throughout the game.”
Kyle Evick, a former TA student that transferred to ERHS early in his career, added 20 points and nine rebounds for the Eagles (3-0) while Michael Shifflett finished with six points and six boards. Cooper Keyes had four steals.
“To come back to this gym, it’s deja vu,” Evick said. “There’s not a game that I’m never ready for — I’m always ready — but it feels like this one has me getting up in the morning and just extra ready to go.”
Keyes said he wanted his entire roster to be more amped up on Wednesday and left disappointed with the effort the Eagles put together on the defensive end. Part of their problem, however, was due to how impressive the Knights are.
“We have to be more locked in than we were tonight, but I’m never going to complain about a win,” Keyes said. “Offensively, I thought we did some great stuff. Defensively, not so much, but I have to give TA and Coach Shields credit. They’re tough to guard. When they get going, they can score quickly. They’re going to be just fine.”
TA showcased its potential as a team that can play with anybody on Wednesday and they provided Nickel the type of opportunities he cherishes as one of the best players to come through in the Shenandoah Valley in recent years.
“Any type of competition, anything that makes me rise to another level and puts a little mean streak in me — I just use that to my advantage,” Nickel said. “That’s what I tried to do tonight.”