TAMPA — Longtime Sickles coach Renaldo Garcia pulled forward Bryce Nickels aside Tuesday afternoon and talked to him about staying poised and keeping his focus during the team’s game later that night.
It wasn’t an ordinary night for Nickels, who faced a familiar opponent in Steinbrenner, the school he played at for two years before transferring to Sickles in August.
But even with the butterflies swirling after seeing his former teammates, the 6-foot-8 Nickels remembered what Garcia had told him earlier and didn’t get caught up in the emotions of the reunion.
Nickels kept his composure and scored a team-high 12 with seven rebounds and five blocks to lead Sickles past the rival Warriors 52-45 in its Class 7A, District 8 opener.
“He was really excited to play against his old friends,” Garcia said of his senior. “I thought he did a really good job and he was a real force on the inside.”
The Gryphons (1-2, 1-0) never trailed, but Steinbrenner was able to keep it close thanks to junior Keshawn Ingram’s game-high 19 points.
Holding onto a six-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter, Nickels and the Sickles offense opened up a quick 9-0 run to take its biggest lead. The defense held its own, too, keeping the Warriors off the board for more than five minutes.
The final two minutes and 41 seconds, however, were much different as Steinbrenner began to hit its stride from the floor.
Led by a pair of 3-pointers by Ingram and two free throws from Jamal Byrne (eight points), the Warriors went on a 12-2 run to draw within eight. But a late block by Nickels and success from the free-throw line ended any chance of a comeback.
“There were definitely mixed emotions wanting to see them do well, but since I’m at Sickles now I really wanted that (win),” Nickels said.
“Sometimes you have to go and get grimy to get the W. That’s what we had to do today. We fought hard and we came out with the win.”
In the nightcap, the Steinbrenner girls survived a late comeback attempt by Sickles to escape with a 36-32 win.
The Warriors (7-0, 2-0 7A-8) opened the game on a 13-1 run and led 22-10 at halftime. Still, the Gryphons (4-2, 0-2), led by Cierra Wheatley’s 11 points, managed to claw back in the second half.
In the fourth quarter, Sickles opened up a 14-2 run to pull within two with less than two minutes to play, but couldn’t find the clutch shot to pull ahead and time ran out.
Rachel Briere led Steinbrenner with 12 points.