A win would be icing on the cake yet fitting on such an emotional night.
Rufus would’ve been proud of his team’s performance.
Ignited by disruptive defense and a dominant individual effort from Juwan Jones, Swett led early and never trailed in a 58-50 victory.
“I told the guys to pretend like this was a regular conference game but they knew it wasn’t,” Swett coach Jeremy Sampson said. “My first coaching job out of college was the junior varsity here. I got to know Rufus and he was a great kid.”
During a special halftime ceremony, athletic department officials retired Leach’s iconic No. 21 jersey underneath the north basket. Leach’s immediate family and relatives enjoyed a standing ovation from a host of supporters and guest speakers.
“We wanted to come out and win this one for Rufus,” Jones said.
Leach was an all-conference guard for the Rams in 1995 and 1996, averaging a county-best 18.4 and 19.1 points per game his final two seasons. He led Swett to its only trip to the sectional finals as a senior and was an all-region most valuable player.
After a stellar career at Appalachian State University that included the school’s first berth in the NCAA Tournament in 21 years and a Southern Conference title, Leach drowned on June 9, 2000 at age 22 while boating with friends on Lake Watauga.
Leach’s jersey is also retired in Boone.
“Rufus was probably the hardest working player I’ve ever coached,” said a choked up Craig Lowery, Leach’s former coach at Swett. “As good a player as Rufus was, he was an even better person. For anyone that saw him play, you got to see a special individual.”
James Chavis fueled a fourth quarter charge from the perimeter with a pair of 3-pointers sandwiched between consecutive fastbreak layups from Jones. Jones capped off a highlight-filled night with an up-and-under 3-point play with 4:05 remaining that put Swett ahead 48-40.
He finished with a season-high 26 points and six steals as the Rams won their ninth game in 12 tries.
“We had to prove we belong in the SEC,” Jones said. “We had a great crowd and it was fun game.”
The Rams jumped out to an early 11-4 lead after Michael Pipkin’s mid-range jumper at the three-minute mark of the first quarter. Pipkin’s only bucket forced a Scotland timeout. Feeding off their best home crowd this season, the Rams battled throughout and never faltered in their SEC opener.
Swett withstood an 8-2 run that closed the third quarter knotted the game at 35.
“The kids played hard and I’m proud of them,” Sampson said. “Juwan made a couple plays there at the end and James hit some really big shots.”
With the game well in hand and under two minutes to play, Swett’s Tyrell McDonald sent an explosion of cheers that shook the bleachers with a one-handed, LeBron-esque glide through the lane.
He grinned as his dunk caromed off the back of the rim.
“I just wanted to make a big play with the crowd and my people out here,” McDonald said. “When we came out and took the floor we knew this would be a winnable game.”
Lady Scots trounce Rams
Purnell Swett’s girls basketball team lost its conference opener at home Friday, falling to Scotland, 65-31.
After winning 8-of-10 games to open the season, the Rams (8-4, 0-1) have lost back-to-back games to begin 2012. Ariel and Samril Ratcliff combined for 29 points as the Scots led by double digits at intermission. Scotland’s frenetic pace continued in the second half as the Rams turned it over 22 times leading to 14 points in transition.
Reach Staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at firstname.lastname@example.org