Globe Sports Writer
MIAMI, Okla. —
It would appear that Ryan Jinks’ back problems are, well, behind him.
In his return to full-time duty after suffering a back injury three weeks ago, Jinks poured in a game-high 24 points to lead the Diamond Wildcats to a 54-42 win over the Afton Eagles on Thursday in a first-round Blue Bracket game of the 68th NEO A&M Tournament.
“It felt great,” the 6-foot-2 senior said. “We didn’t play our best ... but it felt really good to be back out there with the guys tonight.”
Jinks — who suffered a deep bruise to his lower back, spine and hip against Lamar last month — finished 10-for-14 from the field and 2-for-3 from the line. He scored 11 in the third quarter, including a pair of layups off steals to open the second-half scoring. His 3-point play at the 3:24 mark capped an 8-3 run that helped the Wildcats build some breathing room after Afton’s furious second-quarter rally cut the Diamond lead to one.
“He played a great game,” Diamond coach Brandon Rabel said of Jinks. “He was critical. And it’s even more impressive when you think that he’s not fully in basketball shape yet.”
Diamond (14-3) opened the game on fire, hitting 9-of-14 first-quarter shots and building a 22-8 lead after Logan Myers opened the second with a jumper.
But Afton held the Wildcats to just one bucket the rest of the quarter and used a 15-2 run — including three Tim Hopper 3-pointers and a 40-footer at the buzzer from Justin Byrley — to make it 24-23 at halftime.
“I felt like in the first quarter we were able to do what we wanted to and then they kind of slowed us down,” Rabel said. “They got back better in transition and we missed a lot of layups.
“I don’t feel like we attacked the gaps very well against their zone. And I don’t feel like we wanted to go inside. I thought we were a little soft, honestly.”
Diamond pushed its lead to eight late in the third before Afton answered again — this time with a Josh Turley trey and another Byrley buzzer-beater — to make it 38-35 to begin the fourth.
But the Wildcats didn’t let Afton any closer the rest of the way and pulled away with a 10-2 run in the final three minutes.
“They hit a couple of end-of-quarter shots and that was big for them,” Rabel said. “(Byrley) can play, that’s for sure. I switched another guy onto him, someone with a little more length and that helped contain him off the dribble.”
Diamond, looking to win its third straight NEO title, faces West Fork (Ark.) today at 6 p.m. The Wildcats won the Norse bracket last year and were Blue bracket champs in 2010. No champions were determined in 2011 due to weather.
“We’re trying to build on what we’ve done in the past and constantly trying to get better,” Rabel said. “For us to not really play very well and still grind it out, I was pleased.”