By RYAN HERMAN
West Lincoln’s boys basketball team is having an identity crisis.
No, the Rebels aren’t diving into a Miley Cyrus-like tailspin, but rather it’s almost as if they have seen the light.
The West Lincoln team that has shown up for its last three games isn’t the same team that was blown out in seven of its first eight. The current West Lincoln team has done a complete 180-degree turn, and for the better.
I was at Fred T. Foard the night the Rebels were blown away 101-60. As the game went along, I noticed –– or what I thought I was noticing –– the Tigers were running up the score. The two schools are rivals in terms of proximity, and Fred T. Foard didn’t stop running and gunning until it hit the century mark with 18 seconds left.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I thought was a team purposely embarrassing another was nothing more than a team taking advantage of what its opponent gave it –– an open basket.
It was West Lincoln’s game plan: Spread the floor, give the opponent as many looks as you can so as to get the ball back quickly and score yourself in transition. Think Grinnell College, the Division III school known for playing zero defense and purposely allowing one player to take all its shots as to get them into the NCAA scoring record books.
No, the Rebels weren’t singling out one player offensively, but they were trying to make the game fun for a group of players that had little experience playing with each other and the game itself.
What coach Karl Sain once described as “chaos” was indeed ugly –– and, in terms of wins and losses, it didn’t work. But it’s helped them in the long run.
All that running and all those turnovers and all that let-the-other-team-have-an-open-lane has slowed the game down for West Lincoln, so much so that it won its first game in more than a year on Friday and in its last three games have two losses by a combined 13 points.
In their 0-8 start this year before falling 69-63 to Lincolnton on Dec. 20 (a game the Rebels led until the end), they were losing by an average of 21 points, with their closest game a two-point loss at Valdese Draughn on Dec. 4.
They beat North Lincoln 75-65 in the opening round of the Peoples Bank Holiday Clash using a half-court set, which gave them open looks and created lanes to the basket. They also played a half-court set on defense, and clogged the middle against a team that likes to go inside.
In the championship game on Saturday, West Lincoln let a double-digit lead slip away to Bandys, but the Trojans had a lot to do with that. They finally got hot, and started playing defense while the Rebels cooled off.
Instead of taking 59 really bad shots like it did on Dec. 6 at Fred T. Foard, West Lincoln took 45 against Bandys, and most were good, wide-open looks.
“We’ve got some shooters who are getting better looks now with some slight changes in the offense,” Sain said after the 86-79 loss on Saturday.
West Lincoln’s improvement was even lauded by the coach of the tournament champion.
“The kids played their tails off. We got down big. My gosh, I think (the Rebels) hit seven out of eight 3-pointers in the first half –– they were on fire, and shooting the ball from anywhere on the floor and making it,” Bandys coach Scott Stilwell said.
For those who may haven given up on the Rebels eight games into the season, remember this: Nine of the 14 on their roster played football and joined the team late. Many of those had played very little organized basketball before. And what looked like a hopeless mess has now given the team hope.
A team that, a month ago looked as if it didn’t know what a basketball was, has figured out what to do with it.
“(The football players) are a lot of winners who know how to win. The problem is, we didn’t have much experience playing with each other. As we gain experience we’re also gaining that cohesion,” Sain said. “I think we’ve got a much better identity on both offense and defense now, and that’s starting to come out.”