After losing his top two scorers from a season ago, John Creighton knows sometimes it’s just as opportune to be lucky as it is good.
Some might call Washington’s 45-42 Thursday road triumph at Franklin Learning Center (FLC) winning ugly, but in the rough and tumble Public League, any victory can and should be viewed as survival. Against the Bobcats, GW did just that: survived. Somehow.
In a tight first half that saw the Eagles take a 22-21 deficit into the break, Creighton’s squad quickly rebounded in the third quarter, building an eight-point lead in the frame’s latter stages. When that withered and turned into a 42-41 FLC advantage with 1:05 remaining, the deep, balanced Eagles never flinched.
With FLC holding possession with 33 seconds to go, the Eagles opted for one last defensive push before fouling coming out of a timeout. A timely trap off an inbounds pass allowed GW senior guard Joseph Randall enough leeway to wriggle the ball away from the defender and go coast-to-coast for the game-winning layup. Just for good measure, junior guard Asante Ali stole the ensuing inbounds pass and found senior G/F James Cottrell underneath for an easy insurance bucket. Just like that, those lucky Eagles (9-5, 5-3) had turned certain defeat into a huge Public League Division B victory.
“It’s just discipline, when it comes down to it,” GW’s second-year head coach said following the victory. “Our guys have to understand when you’re up in crunch time, the opponent should be working their butts off, not you. We did well in the third, but in the fourth we collapsed, mainly because it’s tough to teach teenagers not to shoot when they have a wide open look.
“That’s where we’re at right now, getting better with our basketball IQ’s and late-game situation stuff. Right now, we’re not a four-quarter team, and we got lucky, but I am proud of them for getting the win. That’s something I’ll never complain about.”
In his first year at the helm of the Eagles basketball program, Creighton guided his team to a 14-win season, including nine in Division B, good enough to win a regular season title and get to the playoffs. However, this year’s group — while certainly containing the potential to replicate last year’s success — looks very different.
In 2012-13, Creighton had Kendale Truitt, a top-five scorer in the city, at his disposal. Not only that, but he also had Truitt’s younger brother, Devante, a phenomenal scorer in his own right, so in crunch time, it was no secret where the ball was going. Now, with Kendale having graduated and Devante transferring to Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter of Division A, Creighton has learned to spread the ball around to a team that, while not as top-heavy as last year, is deeper and more versatile.
“We go 10-deep right now, and that overall balance gives us more options in crunch time,” Creighton said. “There’s options whether the opponent plays man-to-man, zone or press defense. We have an option for anything that will be thrown our way, so now it’s a matter of bringing it together. I see it in spurts: this could be a very, very good team, better than the one that won the division last year.”
Against FLC, Washington certainly flexed those depth muscles. Junior forward Jerome Blume was the leading scorer with 10, and he also added 11 rebounds. Cottrell was next with nine, then Randall with eight, Ali and senior guard Khyree Hunt-Hawkins with six, four from junior Jheron Johnson and two from football wideout Rasheed Black, who also contributed down low on the glass in the first half when teammates got into foul trouble. This doesn’t even include senior G/F Charles Brown, who has missed the last three games with a leg injury; in league play, Brown is averaging 15 points in four contests, so his absence has forced others to step up.
“We don’t have many guys with varsity experience, so it’s tough to harness that in-season on the fly,” Creighton said. “A lot of them are coming up from the JV level, but I think we’ve been able to build better chemistry and team morale since we don’t have to rely on one guy. Last year when we were in doubt, we gave the ball to Kendale; now, we have the luxury of choosing what we do based on match-ups.”
While a repeat of last year’s division title may not be in the cards (at press time, GW sat behind Bartram, Del-Val Charter, Boys’ Latin and Simon Gratz in the standings), Creighton still believes this team has what it takes to make a playoff run, or at least do what last year’s team couldn’t, which would be to win a postseason game.
To do so, Washington will have to keep doing what it did against FLC (6-12, 2-7), which is to realize success can be achieved through the sum of its overall parts. Despite not having two explosive scorers as they did a year ago, the Eagles can identify which players are better ball-handlers, defenders, rebounders, free throw shooters, etc. Putting the five best players on the court depending on real-time match-ups is how Creighton’s 2013-14 team will be able to go farther than last year’s.
“I would hope looking back on this game come playoff time will help us,” Creighton said. “It shows the kids that others have the ability to step up with Charles out. Statistically-speaking, we’re pretty even-keeled. If we see a mismatch, we’ll go for it. We are evenly balanced, and we trust each other. You’ve got someone like Joseph Randall who prides himself on defense, and he gets himself the game-winning steal and bucket. Today was his day to shine, and I think by putting him on the court in that situation and showing him we trust him will go a long way.”
Most of all, Creighton is enjoying this ride because of the kind of kids who are on his roster.
“They’re all good kids,” he said. “They make it easy for me to want to work my butt off to help them get better. They get good grades and there’s no discipline or behavioral issues with them. They put in the time and hard work, which is why I’d love to see it all come together for them in the end.” ••