Sunday, January 11, 2015

Laney defeats Butler in "instant classic" to remain undefeated in region play

Two of the best on the sidelines, Laney head coach Buck Harris (left)
 and Butler head coach Cervantes Boddy (right)
 meet before the clash of their unbeaten teams Friday.

Friday's Laney-Butler showdown was highly anticipated.  The stands were full and the tickets gone three hours before tip-off.  It was emotional.  The composure of the players, coaches, and referees were tested as fans scrutinized every action.  Players trash talked and went chest to chest in ways that somehow didn't seem inappropriate, even in a time when such things are usually frowned upon and curtailed by officials.  Fans argued and taunted each other, accusing each other's school of "recruiting" or "not being all that good after all."  Heck, someone near me threw a plastic bottle on the court and as the entire gym gazed up at our section of the bleachers I thought for a second a swat team would be called!

Let's just say the atmosphere was intense.  More intense than any high school game I've seen in decades.  And by the time Laney squeaked out a 72-65 win to become region 3A's only undefeated team, the players had been through a roller coaster ride of emotions.  It is during these moments when the game teaches its most important lessons.  I believe the biggest reason for Laney's victory can be traced back to its season opener in the gym of nationally renowned Saint Francis, a team with a likely future McDonalds all american, a Florida State and an Xavier signee, and a "fourth best player" who is 6'11" and heading for division 1 college basketball next season.  Down 18-3 early in that game, the Wildcats looked overwhelmed and unsure of themselves.  That was one moment.  The next moment, Buck Harris' team rallied to play harder, smarter and more cohesively than its famous opponent and came roaring back only to lose on the game's final possession.  The Wildcats have since proceeded to do the things they did after that moment in mid November on every possession of every game since, no matter the opponent, its size, its overwhelming talent, or its ranking.  The result has been 15 consecutive victories and the commonly held belief that Laney is our state's best team.  So when Butler led by 9 early, Laney's guys knew the formula:  play hard, play smart, play together.  Good things will happen.  And they did.

Butler has taken a different path, yet one no less impressive.  The Bulldogs have mauled nearly every opponent in its path.  And by giving Laney its biggest scare (on Laney's home court) since Saint Francis, coach Boddy's team no longer deserves to hear they are not Laney's peer.  But before Friday, Butler's guys had not had its moment.  Its "Saint Francis moment," if you will.  Well they have had it now.  And the way they deal with that moment will say everything about whether this Butler team is headed for true greatness.  I believe they are.  Prior to Friday's game, I told everybody who would listen (including Laney's coach... ask him!) that Butler would give Laney everything it could possibly handle.  Now I expect this group to bottle up all the good things that come from the learning experience they were lucky to have Friday and unleash it one game at a time from this point forward.

As thrilling as Friday's event was, it was only one game in January.  Both teams have many similar battles ahead as they navigate through what may well be the finest region in the state, regardless of classification.  So although Laney's pre-conference schedule sped up its learning curve and in effect gave it a head start by providing a mid November "moment," Butler having its gut check time on January 9th is plenty early to set up the Bulldogs for a path similar to the Wildcats.'

We basketball fans are lucky this season.  I'll do my best not to miss a second of any action that is anything like what I witnessed Friday.  Now let's look at some of the game's most interesting details.  There are more than I can possibly share.  But I'll do my best!

Game Notes

First I'll share a quick video I made for Facebook to try to provide a snapshot of the level of play in this game.  Below this video I will share very detailed analysis.  But seeing this gives a flavor for the intensity, athleticism and skill on display when our area's two best teams collided.

Zep Jasper's double duty

Butler's Don Coleman has been unstoppable, or at least "unstopped," this season.  Laney's Zep Jasper has been called upon to contain the state's best guards (Pebblebrook's Jared Harper, Morgan County's Tookie Brown, etc) all season.  He did Friday what has been by far the best defensive job I've seen against Coleman.  He made it very difficult for him to touch the ball.  When he did, most times he was not in his usual spots.  Zep didn't "stop" Don.  But he kept him from singlehandedly beating Laney, something he is certainly capable of doing.

This feat is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as simultaneously being Laney's most consistent offensive player throughout the entire game.  Teammates Christian Keeling and Jashawn Brooks led the way at different times in the game.  But Jasper made timely baskets at every turn, whether in the first half as Butler was riding high and threatening to pull away, or in the second half when a winded Coleman switched to guard him and Jasper blew past him for two scores in the paint.  It was tweeted after the game that Jasper was offered a scholarship by the Charleston Southern coach who was in attendance.  I have two things to say about that.  1)  The coach is smart.  2)  I confess to being wrong before the season when I told friends that Zep would fit best with a very good division 2 team or a good "low major" division 1 team.  I vowed months ago to no longer doubt Coleman.  I make that same pledge regarding Zep now.  Buck is lucky to have him holding Laney's keys.  And so will the college coach lucky enough to land him.

Coleman will grow from Friday's experience

Let's get a couple things established.  I believe Don Coleman is our area's best player.  Former Glenn Hills and Georgia Southern graduate, NBA veteran player and head coach, and current Florida Atlantic head coach Mike Curry is a smart guy.  He long ago put his scholarship money where his mouth was and scooped up this highly competitive scoring machine.  I can imagine Don's thoughts as he has heard Laney's praises trumpeted all season.  He was featured in Friday's Augusta Chronicle, which on the day of a game like this has to add tons of pressure.  And from my perspective, he played a fine game Friday.  He scored, rebounded, and set up teammates.  He encouraged friend and running mate, Ben Rhodes, whose development has been so important to Butler's emergence as a top team statewide.  But he is a teenager.  And at a point in the fourth quarter, with the game in the balance and emotions running extremely hot, he said or did something to earn a seat on the bench.  Kudos to coach Boddy for upholding standards that he believes are important to his players' growth as players, but more importantly as men.  And kudos to Don for cheering his teammates along from the bench those final three minutes.  And kudos in advance to both of them for what I expect to see going forward:  a duo that has been through the fire, leading by example and showing its Bulldog family members what it means to compete every possession of every game while keeping the good of the team at the top of their priority list.

Too many contributors to count

A coach from a medium sized college in South Carolina became a texting buddy of mine last week.  He wanted to get familiar with our area's hoops scene.  I told him Friday's Laney-Butler game was a "must see."  The image
to the right shows our text exchange Friday.  Let's say this game had many good players and performances.  I'll try to point a few out here.

I mentioned Keeling, Brooks, and Rhodes above.  At different times, each looked like the game's best offensive player.  Or at least the most impactful.  Keeling continued what he started last Saturday against Jenkins, a relentless attack on the basket off the dribble that more often than not ended with a score, a trip to the foul line, and/or a body or two crashing to the ground.  Despite his track record of scoring at the rim, I've never believed he had extraordinary athleticism.  But his finger roll off the stride at the beginning of the game and his two handed tip dunk "off the vert" made me do a double take.  Christian is only a junior.  He is improving rapidly and channeling his fearlessness and confidence into major production, becoming a major offensive weapon on an elite team.

Another Laney weapon is Jashawn Brooks, who has become so much more than the shooter I once knew.  He now does all the little things, which are always the most important.  He takes charges and attacks the basket, regularly earning trips to the foul line.  And he has developed a knack for making shots in the game's deciding moments when many players freeze.  Brooks led the Wildcats in scoring with 20 points Friday.  The timeliness of his points made them more important than the exact number indicates.

Rhodes' development has been remarkable.  He has had brilliant moments this season, like his 25 point burst versus Richmond Academy.  But before Friday he had yet to shoulder the kind of scoring responsibility he did Friday.  He answered the call admirably, making shots from deep and attacking in the open court.  The Bulldogs suffered a major blow when Ben fouled out with 4 minutes remaining.  The pace of his improvement makes me eager to see how well he will play as he gets more games like Friday's behind him.

Bright future

I have regularly referred to Butler's senior leadership, almost taking for granted that the Bulldogs will take a step backwards when Coleman, Rhodes, Jaylon Archie, and Tyekeith McClattie graduate.  But games like Friday give players an opportunity to show a side of themselves not previously uncovered.  I appreciate the skill level and shooting touch of Butler's 6'6" junior Ricquail Smoot.  But I hadn't, before Friday, seen his aggressive side.  "Necessity is the mother of invention" is an old saying that can be stretched a bit to apply here.  6'6" tall or not, anyone playing Laney and not playing aggressively will be eaten alive, as they say.  After failing to finish a couple point blank shots early, Smoot began throwing his body into defenders, scoring on post feeds, off the offensive glass, and slashing to the rim.  And there were times when he singlehandedly manned the defensive boards for Butler.

Another Butler junior, guard Jzwa Collier, made contributions far in excess of what I expected.  He changed the flow of the game with great on the ball defensive pressure soon after checking in during the first quarter.  Playing point guard for much of the night, he handled Laney's full court pressure with composure.  He calmly sank his free throws and made important shots, including a three pointer that tied the game at 64 late with Coleman and Rhodes seated for the evening.  Collier, Smoot, and sophomore Will Lambert give coach Boddy as good a nucleus as just about any local team to build for next season.

***See post from the pasts about Laney and Butler here:***


January 7, 2014
Region Race 2015 (episode 2)... plus a look at "Class 3A Week"

January 6, 2014
Laney starts its most difficult (and exciting) week of the season

Dec 25, 2014
The full gyms at Laney's games remind me of something

Dec 16, 2014
Laney hustles its way to another huge win

Dec 9, 2014
Laney's Secret Sauce:  Playing Harder (Easier said than done)

Dec 1, 2014
Laney Beats Morgan County at Home

Nov 24, 2014
Friday at the Will Avery Tip-Off Tournament

Nov 16, 2014
Laney falls short in season opening thriller

Nov 11, 2014
Laney Opens Season with Nationally Ranked St. Francis

July 11, 2014
Brooks, Taylor, and Walker: ABR Live Summer Send-off

Nov 25, 2013
Laney and Aquinas Open Season with a Statement

March 15, 2012
Laney Makes History


January 7, 2015
Region Race 2015 (episode 2)... plus a look at "Class 3A Week"

January 4, 2015
Friday evening with region AAA

Dec 29, 2014
Rhodes and Coleman lead Butler to win over ARC

Dec 24, 2014
Butler avenges season's only loss

Dec 17, 2014
Butler takes a backseat to no one

Dec 1, 2014
Don Coleman:  A Timeline

Nov 24, 2014
Friday at the Will Avery Tip-Off Tournament

Aug 27, 2013
Coleman Measures Up Nicely

Jan 3, 2013
Butler Controls its Destiny

Jan 24, 2013
Butler's Coleman does it Again

Dec 1, 2012
Thoughts from the Weekend:  Butler

Nov 23, 2012
Thanksgiving Classic Notes:  Butler Bulldogs

Aug 1, 2011

July 21, 2011
Southern Kings 14u AAU Team Returns from Orlando, and Heads to Las Vegas

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