By Derrick Mahone
Early in the fourth quarter, Lovejoy coach Rick Frances and his starters sat on the bench. An usually animated Frances was leaning back in his chair with legs crossed.
He observed as the reserves put the finishing touches on a 68-31 thumping of visiting Chapel Hill Friday in a Region 4-AAAAA contest.
After a first quarter challenge from the Chapel Hill, the Wildcats cruised through the next three quarters for an easy victory. Lovejoy held a slim 15-10 lead after the first quarter, but outscored the Panthers 20-7 in the second to take a 35-17 lead into the intermission.
Lovejoy would stretch the lead further with a 19-4 scoring spurt in the third quarter to take a 54-21 lead into the final quarter.
"We started getting a lot of easy buckets in the second quarter," said Lovejoy senior Cameron Solomon, who had a team-high 23 points, including eight in the first half.
"We came out a little lackadaisical in the first quarter," he added. "We picked it up in the second quarter, and kept playing hard."
The win earned Lovejoy a split in the doubleheader with the girls' team dropping the opening game 55-43 with several missed opportunities.
It was a familiar tune for the Lovejoy girls' as anemic free throw shooting was the major problem. The Wildcat connected on only 12 of 29 free throw attempts for the game.
In its last three losses, Lovejoy hasn't been able to connect from the free throw line. In a six-point overtime loss to Rivedale, the Wildcats missed 13 free throws. In a six-point loss to Morrow, the Wildcats went 9 of 31 from the line.
"We worked hard this week to eliminate turnovers by taking care of the ball against pressure," Lovejoy coach Eric Habelt said. "We did a lot of work on free throws. Not all is bad. We are taking steps in the right direction. We just got to reach out and grab it. Once we put a complete game together, it's going to be fun."
And fun is what the Lovejoy boys' team was having against Chapel Hill. In addition to Solomon's 23 points, Morris Mitchell controlled the paint against a smaller Chapel Hill squad with 15 points.
With the win, the Wildcats improve to 4-1 overall and 4-0 in the region. The struggles continue for Chapel Hill, which is 1-7 and 0-5.
Frances realizes that the competition will get stiffer for his team over the holiday break. Lovejoy's next three games will come in the DeKalb County Holiday Tournament, which features some of the top competition around the metro Atlanta area.
After competing three game there, the Wildcats will play two games in the Hoops-N-Overdrive Tournament at Centennial High against some tough competition.
"We want to go up against the best," Francis said. "We always look and seek out the best competition in the tournaments. The verdict is still out on us. We are looking for that true test."
For the first quarter, it looked as if Chapel Hill was going to provide it, but a pressuring defense proved too much.
Michael Blakey finished with 23 points for Chapel Hill, including all 10 of the Panthers first quarter points. However, he wasn't able to keep up with the pace throughout the game.
Last season, Lovejoy fell a game short of reaching the state tournament. With the return of experienced players Jermmaine Huff, Mitchell and Solomon, the Wildcats figure to challenge this season.
"Our confidence is sky-high right now," Solomon said. "We feel like no one can beat us."
Despite its misfortunate this season, Habelt said his team is still confident they can turn the season around. The Wildcats have lost four straight games since opening the season with wins against Therrell and Jackson-Atlanta in the Morrow Thanksgiving Tournament.
"Nobody in that locker room is ready to push the panic button," Habelt said. "We are competing. I'm really proud of their effort and attitude, despite us not winning."
Alease Allen scored 14 points to lead Lovejoy while Navilla Puall had 11. Wildcats leading scorer Bria Joyner-Williams finished with only 7 points as she battled foul trouble the majority of the night.
All of her points came from the free throw line, where she converted 7 of 9 free throws before fouling out with 57 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
"The other kids stepped up for us," Habelt said. "It is not about any one or two people. We just haven't had the game went it has all come together."