No one said Eastside’s 15th consecutive win was going to be easy - especially not coach Greg Freeman – who had predicted that the Lanier Longhorns’ height would present problems for the Eagles.
But, Eastside shook off a lethargic first quarter and defeated a tenacious Lanier team on the road 56-51.
Eastside improved to 20-2 and has a spotless 7-0 record in Region 8-AAAA. Lanier fell to 12-11, 5-2 in region play.
Treyvon Francis led all scorers with 19 points for the victorious Eagles, while Peyton Smith paced the Longhorns with 14 points.
“That’s why I don’t have any hair,” quipped Coach Freeman after the hard-fought victory over the Longhorns. “They’re the biggest team we’ve faced. We missed 12 free-throws. We made a lot of mental mistakes and that was, probably, Anthony’s (Henderson’s) worst game since he was a sophomore. The difference is we defend."
As the Eastside girls had done earlier, the boys seemed to leave their game on the bus. Lanier was quicker at the outset, and established its inside game thanks to 6-foot-8 Trevon McSwain, who the Eagles didn’t have an answer for early on. The Eagles and the Longhorns traded baskets throughout the quarter, with the Longhorns holding a 10-9 lead after one period of play.
And, if it hadn’t been for senior forward Jamal Hardge, who Coach Freeman singled out for his outstanding energy on defense, Lanier’s lead could’ve been much more.
“Jamal is ‘that guy,’” Freeman stated. “He attacks the dribble better than anybody I’ve coached. I haven’t had a guy in my 24 years that can come and take an active dribble out of somebody’s hands the way he does. That’s just a gift of talent he has.”
There were some fireworks early in the second period, however. Lanier point guard Bryan Gropp brought the ball into the Longhorn’s offensive zone when Henderson and Francis trapped him next to the Eagles bench.
All three players fell to the floor in a rough-and-tumble scrum, and things almost got out of hand as two Longhorn players left their bench to come to Gropp’s aid. Smartly, none of the Eagles joined in the fray as Longhorn Coach Jeremy Huckaby pushed his offending players back to the bench.
But, it was too late. As a result, Lanier seniors Quran Milord and Bryceton Osborne were ejected for leaving the bench with 6:49 left in the second period. Their ejections were doubly disappointing because it was Senior Night at Lanier and both players were playing their final regular-season home game.
The altercation seemed to spark Eastside as they outscored the Longhorns 14-3 in the quarter to take a 23-13 lead at halftime.
Lanier wasn’t about to make the Eagles’ 20th win a cakewalk, though. Their guards starting hitting their shots, and cut Eastside’s lead to 24-21 with 5:31 left in the third quarter. Smith hit two key 3-point shots, and Hardge committed an unfortunate foul on Lanier’s Simon Shafack on a 3-point attempt with 6.1 second left.
The foul sent Shafack to the line for three shots where he made 2-3. The Eagles led by five, 38-33, going into the final quarter.
As poorly as the Eagles’ Henderson played – nine points, several missed free-throws and fouling out of the game with 1:43 left – Francis, Hardge and center Daniel Oduah played that much better in the fourth.
Eastside’s defense denied Lanier’s big men the ball inside, with Hardge seemingly everywhere grabbing loose balls, rebounding and scoring four crucial points. Francis scored eight of his 19 points in the final period, including four clutch foul shots, and Oduah was a rock inside and scored three more important points.
Every time the Longhorns got close, the Eagles made a key defensive stop, scored a big basket or hit their free-throws. And, when the dust settled, Eastside, and its defense-first team, had won the game 56-51.
Eastside returns to action tonight on the road at Monroe Area in their final regualr season game of the year.