By Brian Paglia
When preparing to face Dougherty, the Eagle's Landing boys basketball team saw an opponent with an uncomfortable advantage, but one the Golden Eagles felt they could neutralize. The Trojans were quick, yes. But after four days of practice, Eagle's Landing felt prepared to deal with Dougherty's speed.
Then they saw Trojans guard Arabian Williams burst by, and for the next 42 minutes Eagle's Landing was caught within the one critical mismatch it hoped to avoid, exerting much of its energy trying to chase Dougherty.
By the end of a 58-51 defeat in the first round of the Class AAA tournament, Eagle's Landing (18-11) lacked the vigor to finish a spirited comeback and extend its first state tournament appearance in school history. On an unfamiliar stage, the Golden Eagles long, arduous journey came to an abrupt end Friday.
"We didn't do what we had to do from the beginning," Eagle's Landing senior Warren Staples said. "We didn't play defense. Coach (Clay Crump) had a great gameplan set up for us. We just didn't execute."
Indeed, from the outset, Dougherty (12-12) found success driving into the lane in the Trojans' motion offense or advancing the ball upcourt in transition. Eagle's Landing couldn't match the speed of Williams, who was one of three Trojans in double figures with 14 points.
But that was just one malady. There was also the 14 turnovers, including six alone in the third quarter. There was the disparity in contributions from each team's bench -- Dougherty's bench outscored Eagle's Landing's, 17-0 -- and at the free throw line.
And Eagle's Landing endured shooting woes throughout, a symptom perhaps of the pressure of the state tournament for a team unaccusstomed to its consequences.
"These are places these kids haven't been," Crump said. "There's a lot of nerves in unfamiliar territory, and that can tighten them up. We tried to keep them loose and get them a lot of shots this week. The rim gets smaller when you're in uncharted territory."
"We were so scared to mess up," said Eagle's Landing senior Javan Wells, who scored 15 points. "We realized the pressure that was on us, and we'd never had pressure like that."
Eagle's Landing's 12-win improvement from last season and appearance in the state tournament was a product of an influx of intelligent and passioned basketball players.
None was more obvious than 6-foot-7 freshman Desmond Ringer. Down by 13 at the end of the third quarter, Ringer began the Golden Eagles comeback.
Ringer's tip-in with 6:00 left in the game diminished Dougherty's lead to single-digits. He scored 11 of his game-high 19 points in the second half.
"He's grown up so much," Crump said. "Early in the season, we tried to get it into him, but he just had a hard time finishing, especially with contact. Now he knows how to go through that contact, the guys have more faith in him and we're very excited about his future."
As the game slipped away, Wells and fellow senior Aaron Horton fired three-point attempts in pursuit of extending their high school careers to no avail.
They failed in that end, but they succeeded in bring Eagle's Landing to a place it had never been before.
"We really appreciate their sacrifice and effort," Crump said. "They set the tone for the future."