Teams can be measured by how well they respond to a "punch in the mouth," figuratively speaking, of course. And because Laney coach Buck Harris' non region schedule is probably the most difficult in the state, his Wildcats wasted no time before receiving their first blow of the new season in the form of an 18-3 game opening run by the nation's #21 ranked Saint Francis. Playing away from home and against likely McDonald's All American Kobi Simmons and Florida State bound Malik Beasley, the Wildcats looked tentative and overwhelmed. Facing a possible rout in the opening minutes of the opening game, Harris must have wondered if he had bitten off more than his group could chew. But almost before that thought could form in any of our minds, senior sharpshooter Jashawn Brooks ran off five quick points and Laney spent the rest of the night clawing back, trading leads, and doing everything Harris could have hoped for... except completing a shocking upset on the road.
The Wildcats would eventually fall to the defending Class A state champs 67-64. A last second try at forcing overtime by junior Zep Jasper came up short and the guys walked out with heads high and to a standing ovation by the sizable crowd from Augusta that travelled to see the boys play. I choose to believe that Saturday's result is the best long term outcome for Harris' bunch. The guys now know first hand that no matter how good the team is, there is always another bunch a short drive away that may be better. They know that hard work and improvement will be keys to achieving their lofty goals. They know they can take a great team's greatest shot. And they know they can beat any team in any environment.
The Wildcats have no time to contemplate what may have been Saturday night. Friday's opponent, Stevenson High School, comes to town Friday as a part of the Will Avery Tip-Off Classic at Evans High.
But before we move on to the next steps in Laney's brutal pre-region schedule, let's take a look at some of Saturday's most memorable moments, at least from our home team's perspective:
There can actually be a huge advantage to being an underdog and to seemingly be on the way to being blown out early in a game like this. At some point someone gets the attitude that "if I'm going down, I'm going down swinging!" In my opinion, Jashawn Brooks made that step Saturday during this two possession, five point spurt that narrowed the Saint Francis lead to 18-8.
After Brooks helped Laney gain a little momentum, juniors Zep Jasper, Christian Keeling, and Colin Young made timely baskets; and before the Laney crowd (including me!) could finish screaming its approval, the Wildcats had answered the home team's run with a 17-4 spurt of their own.
With Saint Francis leading 22-20, and despite Laney's run, it became clear to me to that the Wildcats would have to play nearly flawless basketball to have a chance to win. Simmons and Beasley's size and athleticism enabled them to score easily once they got into the open court and into the paint. Laney could not rely on these easy baskets. Everything they would get would have to be earned. Shots had to be made. Opportunities had to be created out of nothing. And turnovers needed to be forced in all 94 feet of the court.
Laney's guys were definitely up to this task. But senior Jashawn Brooks looked particularly confident in his ability to make something out of nothing, repeatedly sizing his man up, beating him off the dribble, knocking down shots in the mid range before the long help defenders could affect his shot, and when appropriate getting all the way to the hoop and finishing with either hand. See here:
Speaking of making shots, junior Colin Young has gotten SO MUCH BETTER! During one possession in the video below I could see him (through my phone's camera) telling teammate Zep Jasper with his body language to hurry up and get him the ball because he knows exactly what to do with it!
I am loving Colin's game more every time I see him play. Not only was he ready to make Saint Francis pay every time daylight was given for a three point shot, but he also patiently worked his man over and got to the basket when space was taken away. See Young here as he had us Laney fans "going bananas" as he scorched the nets Saturday:
But darts by Young and Brooks still would not have been enough to keep the Wildcats in this game. The defense would need to create turnovers and loose balls had to be grabbed. Senior backup point guard Tommy Smith and senior forward Jervon "Rabbit" Walker would do much of this work. Here Walker sprints ahead to finish in transition (so fast I almost couldn't get it on film!) and Laney creates a turnover that leads to a trip to the line for Smith, who made both tries and gave Laney its first lead at 33-31 heading into halftime.
Junior point guard Zep Jasper had the responsibility of handling the ball and getting his teammates the right passes at the right times. He performed this task well. But he also made tough shots in big moments. His early floater put Laney on the board for the first time. His transition three in the second quarter capped Laney's important 17-4 second quarter burst. And his third quarter "and 1" floater sent the crowd into a frenzy. These moments were all caught on film (below). But one basket that I missed on film showed what I found new and exciting about Zep after seeing him play for the first time in months: Zep has gotten bigger and more athletic. The basket I didn't film was a coast to coast drive that ended in Jasper finishing above the rim in traffic over Saint Francis' long defenders. I predict it will be soon when Jasper turns that ball over and sends it home with a dunk off the stride. Buck puts a lot of trust in Zep. All I have to say about that is Buck is a smart guy!
Senior Jalen Taylor did a particularly good job of adapting his game to the circumstances Saturday. Accustomed to being as long and as athletic as anyone on the court, the 6'6" forward found himself in the land of pogo sticks and trees. And early foul trouble didn't help. But Taylor's activity in the open court, his relentless attack on the offensive glass and his movement without the ball led to timely baskets (including three dunks, only one of which I caught on tape).
With non region opponents like Stevenson (Nov 21), Morgan County (Nov 29), Pebblebrook (Dec 6), and Norcross (Dec 13) on the horizon, Laney will need to build on the Saturday's good points to survive pre-region schedule Harris has put together. Based on the way the guys took Saint Francis' best punch, I'll predict the Wildcats will be in a great place come January, February, and hopefully mid March!