Thirty-five combined losses in 2010 and 2011 make this year’s 10-5 start even more satisfying for head coach Travis Lemanski. The Bulldogs have won five straight and are 2-0 in conference play for the first time in six years.
“Guys are stepping up and we’re making the plays we didn’t before” Lemanksi said Saturday night at West Bladen after another buzzer-beating victory. “I’ve got players buying into what I’m trying to sell.”
St. Pauls’ latest win was noteworthy, a two-point triumph over a Knights team that snuffed out the Bulldogs’ berth in the Robeson County Shootout Championship in December. With the game tied at 60 in the closing seconds, Javon Crawford rebounded Malik Livingston’s missed jumper and put up an off-balance shot underneath the basket as time expired.
Jubilation on the visting bench ensued.
“It was a weird situation and I’m still not sure how it went in,” Lemanski said. “To win a game like that on the road against a quality team is a big step for us.”
Crawford’s heroics gave St. Pauls its fourth win this season by three points or less. Last season, the Bulldogs were 0-3 in such contests. According to Lemanski, a rise in his team’s maturity level began in the Shootout when Livingston move the length of the floor for a game-winning bucket. St. Pauls’ one-point over Red Springs sent the Red Devils into a spiral and moved the Bulldogs into the upper echelon of county hoops.
Since that victory, St. Pauls has won six of eight, giving Fairmont a quality competitor getting into the thick of the Three Rivers Conference. The Bulldogs host South Robeson Wednesday and finish out the week at West Columbus before next week’s showdown with the Golden Tornadoes, a squad that has won 30 straight games against Three Rivers competition.
“I think we’ve always had the talent to be successful, but our guys would always get tight and tense up in crunch time,” Lemanski said. “They know what it takes now to be a good basketball team.”
Leading the turnaround has been Kane Banner and Jaquell Johnson, a pair of seniors who have steadily improved as the season has progressed. Dustin Canady’s emergence in the backcourt has alleviated some of the scoring pressure off of preseason all-county nominees Deion Gilchrist and Livingston.
Livingston is the team’s leading scorer at 14.9 points per game while Gilchrist sits a bucket behind at 13.1.
“Every team needs help from its bench to have a good season and we’ve had a few really step it up,” Lemanski said. “It started for Kane during the summer when he gained confidence in some tournament games I took him to. Jaquell has a great motor and Dustin is really starting to handle his shot.”
With depth no longer a concern, Lemanski hopes this year’s talent pool at St. Pauls is enough to unseat Fairmont for a top playoff seed in the 2A ranks. Renewed confidence with a game on the line certainly helps.