The last time the Eagles took on Stone in what head coach Calvin Brown summarized as the last chance to play every player on the roster and test out a different way of playing, they experienced their worst loss of the season, 80-45.
Last Tuesday, however, East Marion played Stone head up and proved exactly what Brown said after the first matchup — “The score really didn’t indicate the matchup” — beating the Tomcats 71-55.
Brown shortened his rotation down to eight players, and the Eagles’ length and ability to hit shots made all the difference in the world.
“I think it just reminded us of our identity,” he said. “Night in and night out we feel like we can roll our sleeves up and let the game dictate what’s required of us then just find a way to get it done. That night, we shortened the bench, but we still had a happy bench and that is bigger than anything. People who didn’t get in at all or as much as they usually do stayed engaged and supportive. That’s a sign of a good team right there.”
Five players contributed all but one of the Eagles 71 points as Flenard McLin and Ja’Mario Marsalis each had 15, John Rawls had 14 and Caleb Rawls and Vashon Sims both had 13. John Rawls hauled in 13 rebounds and blocked four shots, Sims had five rebounds, four assists and three steals and Caleb Rawls had four boards and four blocks.
After their initial scheduled matchup was postponed nine days earlier, East Marion and Sacred Heart finally matched up on the hardwood Thursday night in Hattiesburg.
With first place in the Class 1A Region 8 standings on the line, the Eagles outscored Sacred Heart 50-22 in the second half after trailing by one heading into the locker room to win 68-41.
“Stay on course, stay focused and finish plays,” Brown said of his message to the team at halftime. “There was a few minor strategic adjustments, but (Sacred Heart) played really well and we left a lot on the table just not finishing plays, missing assignments defensively and letting them control the tempo. They deserve all the credit for winning the first half, and we felt fortunate that you play four quarters and not two. We challenged (Sacred Heart) to continue to play that well for two more quarters against our best. Over the course of time, we played better and some of the shots (Sacred Heart) was knocking down early weren’t going down. We played at our pace (in the second half) and gradually separated ourselves.”
Caleb Rawls paced East Marion with 17 points on an efficient 7-of-8 shooting from the field to go along with six rebounds and five blocks. John Rawls, meanwhile, added 15 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, and Vashon Sims had 12 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Jordan Howard chipped in 11 points, while Flenard McLin’s long arms led to a strong defensive showing with five steals despite an off shooting night, making just 1-of-8 attempts for two points.
East Marion’s length was the biggest difference in the game as the Eagles outrebounded the Crusaders 44-21, including 18 offensive boards, and had 11 blocked shots while the Crusaders blocked just two.
“I equate second shots and turnovers with basketball suicide,” Brown said. “I always teach our guys if they ever want to beat themselves then turn the ball over and surrender second-chance points. On the flip if you can add those to your diet, it makes it very difficult on your opposition. It has been part of our attack, but it’s not something you can bank on.”
East Marion stretched its lead in the district standings at Lumberton Friday night to two games, beating the Panthers 52-36.
John Rawls had 11 points and 10 rebounds for his 13th double-double of the season, and Marsalis followed with 10 points. The Eagles rotation had a balanced scoring night with Sims scoring nine, Caleb Rawls seven, McLin six, Daniels five and Jordan Howard four.
Lumberton’s Donnell Buckner kept the Panthers in the game nearly all by himself with 19 points, 11 rebounds and an eye-popping seven blocks. While Lumberton has only entered stats for seven of its 15 games to this point, the 6-foot-5 senior’s numbers in those contests are a mirror image of what he showed he’s capable of against the Eagles. He averages 18.6 points, 12.3 rebounds and four blocks per game.
“(Buckner) had a really good game. We just collectively stayed in the fight,” Brown said. “With the makeup game with Sacred Heart being Thursday, fatigue did seem to be a factor, but it’s not an excuse. Our timing was off, and I think it was more mental fatigue than physical. We were out of sync and somewhat flat, but we just kept grinding and extended the bench a little more. We’re fortunate it added up to be enough.”
Brown added that he doesn’t want his players to view their two-game lead in the district as breathing room but instead see it as “having both hands planted firmly on the steering wheel.”
One of the few weaknesses the Eagles have had this season is their free throw shooting. The Eagles are making just 55 percent of their freebies as a team, and only one of their six players that have attempted more than 20 free throws this season is above 60 percent, though McLin is only shooting 65 percent himself. Brown said all he can do as a coach is continue to emphasize the importance of making free throws because it’s difficult to focus in on it with the limited practice time the Eagles have.
“We’re limited in terms of volume free throw shooting (in practice), so we just try to coach the approach. Going forward we really need to have a mindset of no fear of going to the line and have confidence and a seriousness of how each attempt matters and can impact a game,” he said. “But this team has a special quality about it. I’ve noticed in close games we tend to shoot them a little better. It’s almost like they have a sixth sense of the magnitude of them.”
The Eagles played host to Resurrection Catholic Tuesday night, but results were not available at press time. They will host Sacred Heart Friday for Senior Night before closing out the regular season Tuesday at Salem. Tipoff for both games is at 7 p.m.
Pictured Above: East Marion's John Rawls lofts a hook shot. | Photo by Joshua Campbell