And there will be tests aplenty for many of the area squads taking the hardwood: Lumberton girls, 2-1 in the SEC, host 3-0 Scotland, and the Three Rivers-leading Fairmont boys look to avoid a letdown on the road against East Columbus, which shook the league landscape with a surprising 20-point rout of St. Pauls last week.
But arguably facing the toughest test will be the Purnell Swett boys (9-4, 2-1), who host the SEC’s only unbeaten in league action, Hoke County (12-1, 3-0). The Bucks lone loss was a one-point fall to Green Hope on Dec. 29.
The showdown is much more than just any regular season game for the Rams, and Swett coach Jeremy Sampson isn’t going to pretend otherwise.
“Of course, you want to treat it like a regular season game, but the guys and everybody knows it’s not,” Sampson said before Thursday’s practice. “It’s a big game for us. Probably one of the biggest games for (Swett) in a long time.
“With the win we can go as high as a tie for first in the conference. It’s really big and the guys understand that.”
Headlining the Rams-Bucks bout are two of the conference’s leading scorers, Swett’s Juwan Jones (18.3 points per game) and Hoke’s Tarique Thompson (16.6), who will be sure to give spectators plenty to ooh-and-ahh about tonight. Jones needs no introduction. If you haven’t heard of the Swett senior’s breakneck quickness on the court — or any playing field for that matter — then you must be actively going out of your way to ignore athletics in the county. Hoke’s junior Thompson, meanwhile, is a highly-recruited 6-foot-5, 210-pound lefty who already has an offer from East Carolina and interest from Wake Forest and Clemson, among others. The two are no slouches on defense either — Thompson leads the SEC in rebounding at 11.3 boards a game and Jones is the league’s top theft, averaging an eye-popping 4.3 steals an outing.
“We’re focusing on keeping him off the boards,” Sampson said of the double-double averaging Thompson. “I think he’s one of the best players in the league … one of the best players in the state.”
Both Thompson and Jones will likely get theirs on both sides of the court, as they have all season, so a lot of tonight’s outcome will depend which team pays the most complement to their top playmakers. Whether it’s James Chavis stretching the half-court offense with his token 3s or utility player Mitchell Hill hawking boards and running the floor, the Rams will be needing a running-on-all-cylinders kind of night to give the Bucks their first league loss. Hill is coming off a career-high 18-point outing in the Rams’ win over Pinecrest last week.
Hill and his teammats have carried that momentum into this week’s shortened practices. Due to exams, the Rams’ on-court regimen was cut to an hour each day — 60 minutes, however, well spent.
“The guys have been going hard and trying to pump each other up,” he said. “I think the guys have the right mindset going into every practice with intensity. They understand how important it is for us.”
Reach Sports editor Kaleb Roedel at 910-272-6111 or firstname.lastname@example.org