As of January 16, the Eagles were on a three-game losing streak and looked like a team that wouldn’t make the playoffs or would be one-and-done. Flash forward to now – the beginning of February – and Eastside basketball has won six-straight games including its latest and most prominent win, a double-digit victory over Walnut Grove (15-9, 7-2 Region 4-AAAA).
During the streak, the Eagles lost senior guard Marquise Sims to a knee injury, and initially Eagles’ head coach Gregory Freeman assumed Quintrell Mathis would be the one to step up and take Sims’ place. However, it’s Jaridquez Smith who has been able to make up for the loss of Sims.
“We’re adapting to him not being here,” Freeman said.
“[Smith is] a system player in our system. He takes his shots within what we do, it looks good. When he tries to do other things, not so much. That’s pretty much what I’m trying to get them to understand,” Freeman said. “We have to continue to play in this system and let it work for us. What you should be able to see is that it’s not the players making the system, the system’s making the players. We’re playing to our strengths, not what we don’t do, but what we do, do.”
The Eagles’ spacing against Walnut Grove was executed brilliantly, and it started with sophomore guard Isaiah Miller playing more off the ball with Smith and senior Timothy Haynes bringing the ball up the court and initiating the offense.
Walnut Grove tried defending Eastside with a zone defense and it worked at times, but for the most part the Eagles offense was unstoppable.
“We deliberately wanted to make them guard dribble penetration. We put Isaiah Miller – now that Marquise is out – we moved him out to give us some perimeter scoring. He’s been accommodating to it and it’s keeping him out of foul trouble because Jaridquez is playing great on-ball defense and that’s helping us a lot,” Freeman said. “We’re playing with a little bit of confidence. You can see a little moxy there. You can see the guys starting to understand this is how we do it.”
The game was a chess match between the opposing coaches and Freeman delivered a “check” move midway through the second quarter. With a little over five minutes remaining, Eastside up by seven, Freeman told Haynes to wait for the zone to come up so they could attack the defense with dribble penetration and passes to the open man. Warriors’ head coach Ryan Terry told his team to stay back and so Freeman told Haynes to wait, so he waited...and waited.
“I’m the old guy. I may not look old but I’ve been through all of this before and I thought it was comical that he wanted to go there. I’m like, dude, we’ve got a lead now. You gotta come get us. He’s telling his guys to sit back. We can dribble it out, no problem,” Freeman said.
Walnut Grove fans started yelling at Freeman, but he didn’t waver, as time slipped off the clock. Eagles’ fans cheered, daring terry to tell his team to attack the Eagles’ offense. Finally, with a little more than two minutes remaining in the half, Eastside attacked and scored off of a Haynes layup prompting a fist pump from Freeman aimed at the Walnut Grove fans.
A three from Smith sent Eastside into halftime with a 33-22 lead. Terry’s team made adjustments in the second half and brought the defense up to try and trap the Eagles, and it worked to their advantage.
“We always teach our guys if the ball is away from you to flash to the middle. We got some easy buckets because we were able to make two quick passes and beat that trap. When we didn’t, we turned the ball over. It’s just that simple,” Freeman said.
That simple concept can sometimes be so poorly executed, but Freeman and co. ran the offense like a well-oiled machine. The Eagles went on to win 67-57 and Miller led EHS with 21 points while Smith added 11 and Haynes contributed 10.
“His better days are ahead of him,” Freeman said of Miller. “When you realize he’s still a tenth grader, he’s still learning. When he gets a true sidekick with him so he can run and gun, he’s gonna be fun to watch.”
Freeman said after the win that nobody is going to want to play them when the region tournament starts.
“It lets everybody know, I think we kind of shook everybody up when we went over to Eagle’s Landing and handled them,” Freeman said. “It’s wide open and I’m telling my guys what I told them at the beginning of the year, ‘Let’s play Jonesboro for the region championship.’ That’s what we’re looking to. I know people counted us out, we had a tough schedule and all that other good stuff. But it’s when you play well, and we are playing well right now. That’s all that matters.”