An explosive second-half jump led the Leesville Men’s Varsity Basketball team convincingly over Wakefield on Friday, Feb. 21, as the Pride clinched third place in the Cap-8 Conference.
Leesville scored 15 of the first 18 points after halftime to blow open a once-tight game, eventually spoiling the host Wolverines’ Senior Night with a 69-48 win.
Jonathan Mebane, freshman, led the way with 16 points, while Grayson Kelley, junior, added 14. After scoring just one point in the first half, Brandon Staves, senior captain, took charge down the stretch and finished with 13. Jethro Bajani, junior, put together a spectacular performance off the bench and tacked on 13 of his own. Alex Hunter, freshman, led the team by a wide margin in assists.
Led by Mebane and Kelley, Leesville dominated Wakefield in the gritty areas, controlling a vast majority of the rebounds and laying in a number of close-range baskets. Free throws, long an Achilles Heel of this roster, also proved a decisive factor as the Wolverines’ discipline faltered often.
With the victory, the Pride finished the regular season 9-5 in the conference and 13-11 overall, winning nine of their last 11 games to claim the third Cap-8 seed behind Millbrook and Broughton. A squad which once appeared fatally inexperienced, dropping five straight between Dec. 10 and 26, now enters the state playoffs with momentum.
“Every day since the beginning of the season, we just keep getting better and…we’ll keep doing that through the playoffs,” said Sanders Rohs, senior. “We started off…a new group, we had never played together before, and we’ve come a long ways.”
Head coach Russ Frazier has now recorded two consecutive winning seasons since resurrecting the struggling program, which did not post a single .500-or-better campaign from 2005 to 2012.
“It was a roller coaster ride,” said Mebane. “First we would lose some games, [but] then at the end of the season we just got better and better and better.”
The Pride burst out of the gate quickly Friday — scoring 17 points in the game’s first six minutes — but soon ran into difficulties with Wakefield’s unconventional zone defense. The Wolverines (4-10, 7-15) took a 23-21 lead with three minutes left in the first half.
However, a 7-0 run gave the visitors a five-point halftime lead, and the strong finish was a sign of things to come. The Pride surged to a 50-31 advantage after the third quarter, then stretched their lead to 57-35 with 5:56 to play before spreading around more playing time.
“We started strong and, especially in the second half, we played with more intensity,” said Rohs. “…[We] really just pulled away and never looked back from there.”
Since a heartbreaking 79-75 double overtime home loss to rival Sanderson on Jan. 3, Leesville won nine consecutive games against opponents other than Millbrook. Their final four victories all came on the road (and three by double digits) including a highly memorable 59-52 overtime win at powerhouse Broughton on Feb. 5.
Leesville will begin its campaign in the NCHSAA state playoffs on Monday; the seedings will be announced Saturday afternoon. Last year’s team defeated Person County at home in the first round before being eliminated by Broughton.
It’s unlikely that the 2014 bracket will feature the Pride as a particularly high-ranked team, but there are plenty of reasons to believe in a dark horse run.
“Confidence is the big thing,” said Mebane convictively. “We won a few games. We’ll go in there confident.”
Update, Feb. 22: According to the preliminary NCHSAA 4A East bracket, Leesville is the No. 20 seed and will play on the road at No. 13 seed Garner in the first round. The winner of that matchup will face the winner of the game between No. 4 Millbrook and No. 29 Person County in the second round.