WOODS CROSS — Whether it's a gigantic state championship football game or a low-profile preseason basketball game, Diante Mitchell only knows how to play one way — all-out.
The versatile Syracuse High School senior, just a couple of weeks removed from helping lead the Titans into the 5A title game on the gridiron, scored nine of his game-high 19 points in the fourth quarter of a hard-fought 49-46 boys preseason hoops victory over Woods Cross on Wednesday night.
"That kid just gets after it," Syracuse head coach Justin Nelson said of Mitchell. "He's extremely athletic, and he's just heady, a leader who makes good decisions, and he's somebody you can rely on to get the job done.
"He's played for us all three years, he brings that leadership and that experience that some of these younger kids really, really need."
After a lopsided loss that made for a frustrating title-game finish to an otherwise tremendous football season, Mitchell made a smooth, seemingly seamless transition from the football field to the hardwood. And his play down the stretch helped lift the Titans (1-1) to their first win of the young hoops season. He hit 5-of-6 free throws in the final period, including three in the last 30 seconds to help keep Syracuse on top.
"I've done it my whole life," he said of the transition from football to basketball, noting that he always played four sports throughout his youth. "I just try to keep myself in shape as much as possible, running on the weekends, working out on the weekends, trying to get in the gym as much as possible. And it's helped a lot."
After the Wildcats pulled within two points, 41-39, with little more than a minute to play, Mitchell's layup off a lob pass was a thing of basketball beauty that left the Woods Cross fans shaking their heads. He admitted it was not a designed play.
"We're just trying to get it in, trying to get it across half court," he said. "They went to go trap Michael (Phelps), and it just opened up, and he threw it up right where I could go get it."
Senior center Daniel Pehrson scored six of his seven points in the fourth period, including 4-of-4 foul shooting over the final 3:07. Kade Janes, Josh Herfel, Phelps, Landon O'Camb and Daulton Whatcott also made vital contributions for Syracuse in the victory.
For Woods Cross (1-1), Luke Jowers scored 12 points, including all six of the Wildcats' second-quarter points and a 3-pointer that pulled them within three with 2.1 seconds remaining. Hayden Grant scored all 11 of his points in the fourth period to keep Woods Cross in contention, while Skyler Farnes and Brady Cowley chipped in with six points apiece.
Cowley canned a 3-pointer that cut the Wildcats' deficit to 46-43 with 22.3 seconds to go but, after they got one last possession with just three-tenths of a second remaining, his last-gasp, desperation 3-point attempt fell short.
"We've got to give those guys credit. They're a good team," Mitchell said. "We grew up playing those guys in comp; we know 'em pretty well. Every game is a battle. No matter who's out there, it's going to be a battle, and we knew that coming in, and we're happy that we came out with a win today."
Janes' 3-pointer gave Syracuse a 12-11 edge at the end of the first quarter, and 3s by Logan Chapman and Whatcott helped give the Titans a 23-17 halftime lead. Herfel hit a buzzer-beating 3 at the third stop to put the Titans on top 33-27 entering the final frame, and Mitchell and Pehrson combined for 15 of Syracuse's 16 fourth-quarter points to preserve the victory.
"I thought it was a good battle," Nelson said. "Early in the season, everybody's trying to figure things out, everybody's working hard. … We really tried to focus on ourselves and come out and do what we do and work hard on the things that we need to do to be successful, and I was really proud of the way our kids executed and got after it.
"I thought we looked a little bit tired tonight. We're still trying to get our basketball legs underneath us. … But everybody goes through that at the beginning of the year, and you're trying to find the timing and the rhythm and you're a little bit out of sync at times. … Right now, we've got to win on hustle and intensity and getting stops."