Sunday, December 14, 2014

Alleluia's "homecoming" a success

Highlights from Alleluia's home games last week (scroll down for many more clips)

Alleluia sprinted to its fastest start ever in the season's first ten games, winning nine straight after losing the opener.  And before Tuesday, the team had yet to play in its home gym.  As coach Dennis McBride's team prepared for a four game home stretch, I was anxious to see what the team would do with a home court advantage.  All teams play their best at home.  But Alleluia has always been especially difficult to beat there because the cozy gym puts its highly supportive crowd right on top of the action, and right inside the heads of opposing players.

After jumping out to a quick eight point advantage Tuesday over the formidable Faith Baptist Crusaders, a cold shooting spell at the free throw line (11-24) and difficulty dealing with Faith Baptist's full court pressure resulted in a hard fought 76-68 loss in the season's first home game.  But the Angels bounced back Friday evening with an impressive 83-72 win over Victory Baptist, and scored 50 points in the first half Saturday on the way to an 81-64 win over Sports Academy South.

Sharp shooting guards Ben Dresser (25 points) and Stephen Mulligan (15 points) made a combined nine three pointers in Friday's win.  Junior point guard Mac McBride filled the stat sheet with 14 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds, and 3 steals.  And junior forward Hayden Hebert scored 18 points while grabbing 10 rebounds.  The Angels gave its filled-to-capacity home crowd plenty to cheer about Friday, scoring 45 points by halftime and maintaining a 10-20 point advantage throughout the second half.  Tuesday's game against the Augusta Eagles homeschool team, who beat Alleluia in the season opener in the Victory Baptist Tip-Off Tournament, will complete the Angels' four game home stand.

Random Notes

One reason I so enjoy following Alleluia is because I like seeing players and teams that improve a lot over time.  It is not unusual to find these guys in the gym at 5:00 A.M. practicing their ball handling and shooting, at 11 P.M. (during high school basketball season) playing pick up ball, or in the middle of a hot summer's day diving on the floor for a loose ball while playing "21."  (Yes, I do mean during the middle of the summer in Augusta's only gym that still doesn't have air conditioning, and yes people evidently still play 21!)  These guys are old school gym rats.  Heck, I'm told they even play on the outdoor courts on school grounds right off Lumpkin Road.  No wonder I like these guys so much!

Two players who had stellar weeks, and whose progress on the court amazes me, are juniors McBride and Hebert.  There was a time, during off season league play against the area's best guards, when McBride would have trouble handling defensive pressure.  I know because I was the referee he would occasionally appeal to for foul calls when the ball was stolen from him.  He needs no such help from the zebras these days.  After Dresser and Milligan shot Victory Baptist out of its zone Friday, McBride dealt the final blow by picking apart Victory Baptist's man-to-man defense, using his ball handling expertise to beat defenders and finish in the paint and at the free throw line.  He scored 10 of his 14 points, making all six of his free throw attempts, during this fourth quarter segment.

McBride is able to get where he wants on the court off the dribble because he "has the ball on a string," as we used to say.  Throughout the week, he used this ability to create great scoring opportunities by beating the initial defender, drawing a crowd and making the right pass to the right guy, or finishing himself.

One year ago, Hebert was a "big man," although he was no taller than 6'3".  After months/years of honing his fundamental skills, he has proven coach McBride right when he says Hayden is a guard. This week he made shots from deep and scored on floaters and pull up jump shots.  He has always been a good athlete, as was evident by his several blocked shots Friday and his rim rocking dunk Saturday.  But until recently, I haven't seen him make this many impressive plays on the perimeter during game action.  The hours in the gym he spends with his teammates are surely the source of this improvement.

One of the most unique characteristics about this team, and about watching them play in their own gym, is their ability to make deep shots.  Lots of them.  Ben Dresser is a pure shooter.  And in Alleluia's gym, his range legitimately starts just behind half court.  No area player since Westside's Frank Booker, now an Oklahoma Sooner, has earned the kind of green light Dresser has.  His ball handling and shot making skills are solid too.  Only a sophomore, I can't think of an underclassman in this area I would rather have were I a coach.

Dresser is far from the only shooter on the roster.  In fact, no one in the rotation lacks shooting range. Along with McBride and Hebert, seniors Milligan and Abe Dresser (older brother of Ben) and sophomore Elliot Balducci are all threats on the perimeter.  Seniors Billy Conkright and Ryan Wilby add experience, rebounding and skill to the front line, ensuring that this team is much more than only a group long range bombers.

For many reasons, an Alleluia home game is a unique and worthwhile experience for any basketball fan.  The mix and depth of fundamental skills the guys possess is hard to find in high school teams. These features combined with the intimate feel of the gym and the community make this Tuesday's 7:30 P.M. game a hard one for a basketball fan like myself to skip.

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