Malik Livingston is the inbounder, a focal point for the game’s final play.
The pass isn’t as crisp as planned and head coach Travis Lemanski’s blows the whistles and implores his starting lineup to run it again. Too many times over the last three seasons, wins and losses have come down to execution in the waning seconds for the Bulldogs’ boys basketball team and Lemanksi expects nothing less in preparation for Friday’s rivalry game against Lumberton.
“We can score with anyone, but I’ve been emphasizing stops at the defensive end,” Lemanski said. “I’d like to see our guys take pride on defense.”
Four of the last five games against the Pirates have come down to a single possession and three have gone to overtime. Learning how to finish is a necessity should St. Pauls threaten Fairmont for a Three Rivers Conference championship and return to respectability against its closest county competitor by proximity.
Despite comparable talent, the Bulldogs (5-4) have dropped six of their last seven games against Lumberton.
“I think our guys feel like they’re the better team, but Lumberton has been headstrong and more fundamentally sound at the end of games,” Lemanksi said. “Basketball is a game of runs and we have to start closing out opponents, whether that’s Lumberton or whoever.”
During last season’s dismal 4-20 campaign, St. Pauls lost three times to the Pirates by a total of 11 points despite holding a double-digit lead in each contest. This season, on Dec. 5 at Lumberton, St. Pauls squandered a sizable second-half advantage and fumbled it away down the stretch as the Pirates captured their first win of the year.
Lumberton (4-7) has since split six games, earning a pair of second-place finishes in holiday tournaments. The Pirates struggled from the floor in Saturday’s Woodmen of the World tournament final against Whiteville after avenging a Shootout loss to West Bladen the previous night.
After Friday’s bout with the Bulldogs, Lumberton goes to Fairmont before opening Southeastern Conference action at Pinecrest. Three straight road games against projected postseason competitors will test a team’s will according to coach Mackie Register.
“We’re expecting a dog fight in both games heading into conference,” Register said. “Being on the road makes both games tougher, but our guys want to win. These kids see each other on the weekends and hang out together after practice. They play on the same teams each summer. It’s a county rivalry.”
Friday’s tilt features a star-worthy matchup in the backcourt between Deion Gilchrist and Montrae Strother. Livingston has solidified his role as St. Pauls’ No. 2 option at guard while Lumberton is still searching for a go-to player after Strother.
“They’ve got two guys that can really hurt you and we realized that the first time we played,” Register said. “I think Demetri (Sheridan) has really stepped his game up for us on offense. He had 22 the other night and we need more of that. We need that kind of effort from everyone.”
Lemanski’s squad hasn’t played a game in nearly three weeks and used the holiday break to heal from a series of nagging injuries. Two starters were hobbled in the Shootout by ankle ailments while another key contributor missed a game with the flu. Lemanski isn’t worried about coming out flat following the long lay-off and said his team needed the break to regroup physically.
“We’re not freaking out that we haven’t played in awhile,” Lemanski said. “We have 23 total games scheduled and it’s just the way it worked out. We’ve got three more games before the conference opener against Red Springs. Three games to get our problems straightened out.”
Register has stressed rebounding to a group lacking consistency on offense.
“We’re undersized, but we’ve only been out-rebounded three times this year,” Register said. “I like how we’re playing down low, but our shooting has to improve. It’s contagious, too. Maybe someone will get hot and it’ll trickle down to the other guys.”