As time ran down Thursday night against Heritage in round two of the NCHSAA state playoffs, Leesville turned to freshman Jalen Benjamin to hit the game winning shot to knock off the Huskies in upset fashion.
The game was a rematch of two regular season matches between the two schools as Heritage is a rival of Leesville’s in the highly competitive CAP-8 conference. Leesville led after a strong start in the first quarter, and heading into the second quarter it was 20-11 Leesville. Frazier shared his team’s message before the game.
“Our message is simple, we want to keep playing. The guys want to be around each other, so we are trying to earn more time. That’s what we want. We want to keep coming to the gym one more day,” said Frazier.
The second quarter was when Heritage began to find their shot. After outscoring the Pride and thanks to heavy contributions from Jayden Gardner, Heritage was able to pull within two before half. It would have been tied had Leesville’s DJ Horne not hit a shot on the baseline as the halftime buzzer went off. Horne was clutch in the last part of both quarters as he drained a three to end the first quarter as time expired as well. His efforts would prove to pay off for the Pride.
After halftime, Leesville came out flat. Only scoring seven points the entire third quarter hurt the Pride and cost them their lead going into the final quarter. It’s been a theme this season that the Pride need to be winning going into the fourth to have a chance against good teams, but last night was an exception.
Down 46-39 going into the fourth, the Pride began to chip away. They tightened up on defense, and on offense they consistently put the ball into guards Jalen Benjamin and Alex Hunter’s hands. Needless to say, the two Pride guards delivered. Often times calling off the play and taking their men one-on-one, Hunter and Benjamin hit clutch shot after clutch shot as time began to wind down. Chants of “he’s a freshman” rang from the numbers-strong Pride crowd and Benjamin adjusted well.
“Our guys believe in each other. It was a big moment for our team and Jalen stepped up for us. DJ Horne made 3 huge shots in the first half. Jonathan and Ben battled all night. Patrick flew around and worked. And wow, Alex Hunter, he brought in the fourth quarter. He made some big plays,” said Frazier.
At a point in the second half, it seemed the Pride were letting the game slip away as nothing was going their way. Foul after foul was called against the Pride and it seemed no calls were going the other way. Frazier and his assistants were visibly upset, but after a few timeouts, the team calmed down and got back to playing basketball. Good thing they did, because the game easily could have gotten away from the Pride had Heritage gotten into the bonus.
As the clock ticked down under a minute and Heritage’s Gardner missing one crucial free throw, the score became tied at 57. The crowd thought the ball would go into the hands of CAP-8 player of the year Alex Hunter, and it did, but with 15 seconds left, he passed the ball to freshman phenom Jalen Benjamin to close it out. Benjamin did exactly that as if he had done it before, nailing a pull-up three-point jumper over Heritage’s Colton Reed to win the game.
“Jalen having the ball in that moment shows just how much his teammates and I trust him,” said Frazier. “We ran a set to get Alex the ball and he got Jalen the ball in good position to hold for the final shot. Jonathan, Ben and Patrick did a great job spacing the floor. Then Jalen made a big time play.”
Frazier also talked about the meaning of the win for the program. It’s been a long time coming.
“This is big win for our program. We work hard and have competed against the best teams in our state. There are 8 teams left in the east and we played 5 of them in our regular schedule. We want to compete and play the best,” said Frazier.
It seemed like the ultimate form of redemption for the Pride, as they lost to Heritage earlier this season in a 3-OT thriller. in the third round, Leesville will have another chance at redemption. After falling to Cary earlier this season in heartbreaking fashion, they take on the Imps again on Saturday. Remember that Cary never led in all of regulation, and they hit a three last second to force overtime where the Pride would later fall.
The game will be at Cary, the overall no. 1 seed in the tournament, on Saturday night at 7:00. Officials are already expecting a sellout, so students have a limited number of tickets (250) available for purchase at lunch today. Frazier hopes the Loonies will make the trip down to Cary to cheer his team on.
“We want everyone at Cary Saturday night. Game is at 7 and Coach Rogers is selling tickets at smart lunch for $6. It will be a sellout so need to be there as early as possible!”