Jalen McDonald only had two points in the first half against Millbrook. Just his second game back after 6+ months of recovering from a leg injury and fresh off a 23-point season debut against Heritage, McDonald looked slowed and struggled to get scoring opportunities through the Millbrook defense.
The Pride needed McDonald more than ever in the second half.
If there is one consistent thing about Leesville basketball, it is the never-say-die attitude their head coach preaches on a daily basis. When McDonald received the fast break pass from Carter Whitt in the fourth quarter, and had nothing but open space in front of him, the entire fan-filled gym knew what was about to happen. McDonald took liftoff and delivered a ground-shaking windmill dunk that not only gave the Pride the lead for the first time in the game, but gave Leesville the momentum shift they had been looking for.
On a cold evening, the last day of January, fans piled into the gymnasium at Leesville Road High School. This isn’t just another regular conference home game for the Leesville Pride. It’s THE rivalry game of the year, against archrival Millbrook Wildcats. The Wildcats, ranked 4th in the state, haunted Leesville just a month and a half ago, defeating the Pride at Millbrook, 84-76…an 8 point difference at the end of the game.
However, that game was played while Jalen McDonald, Pride guard, was out with an injury. In his 2019-2020 season debut, McDonald garnered a lot of attention for himself and the Leesville program against Heritage just a few days before. The dominant 6’5” forward made an immediate impact, scoring 23 points and creating a sizable highlight reel in the process. McDonald dunked on multiple occasions against Heritage, creating the loudest crowd reactions of the year from Leesville fans.
Obviously, fan noise is never enough to defeat such a talented team like the Millbrook Wildcats. On Friday night, it definitely helped. The atmosphere was unlike anything Russ Frazier, head coach of the Pride, had seen.
“I don’t think that many people had ever seen that kind of atmosphere here at Leesville ever.” said Frazier. “ “We are capable of doing that for every sport at Leesville. It’s just a matter of if the community wants to get behind it or not.”With the standing room only crowd filling in quickly, and the atmosphere beginning to feel like a college game, the game had no choice but to live up to the hype. Speaking of colleges, Levelle Moton, N.C. Central head basketball coach, and Kevin Keatts, NC State head basketball coach, made sure to grab their seat courtside for the highly anticipated game.
The game didn’t start hot for the Pride. They were immediately challenged on defense by Eric van der Heiden, who started off the game with a bang, draining a few deep three-pointers in the first quarter. The Pride were not playing their best and needed to make adjustments quickly, or else the game would get out of hand by halftime.
In the second quarter, Carter Whitt, Pride guard, began to get into a scoring groove, finding ways to slice through the Wildcats’ defense as he drove constantly towards the basket. Although still outscored in the game, the contest became more and more back and forth as the game went into halftime. The Pride needed to lock down on defense while creating better scoring opportunities for themselves.
That’s exactly what the Pride were able to accomplish after halftime. The ball was passed better, and the defense tightened up, forcing Millbrook to take shots they regretted. Deon Daniels, Pride guard, owes the halftime turnaround to the defensive improvements and play off the glass: “Our ability to get to the rim gave our offense the spark they needed.”
Daniels took part in his fair share of the Pride’s rolling offense in the second half, finishing the game with 17 points and 9 rebounds. Daniels and Whitt were the main contributors of Leesville’s game beyond the arch.
Once the momentum switched in Leesville’s favor after the dunk by McDonald, the Pride looked the most efficient as a team as all game, with fewer turnovers and more points scored. The Wildcats did not completely leave the game on cruise control though, as they also came back from a few baskets down to tie the game with 40 seconds to go. Leesville held the ball for the last shot, and the game almost ended after 4 quarters when Jalen McDonald went for the tip in off Whitt’s missed shot, but the ball rolled off the rim and the game was headed to overtime.
Although Millbrook had control of overtime early, in the end the Wildcats succumbed to McDonald’s and Whitt’s stellar offensive shows, which led to fouling, which led to made free throws, which led to a Pride win. More importantly, Leesville handed Millbrook their first in state loss (only other loss being to Montverde Academy, the number one team in the nation), and both teams are now tied for leading the Cap-7 conference.
More than likely, these teams will encounter each other once more in the Conference Championship, or possibly in the NCHSAA 4A Playoffs. If so, fans from both sides are in for a treat with the good games the two teams have put on in recent years with bigger stakes.