It’s what every high school basketball coach wants to see at this point of the season. With conference play in full swing, it appears two teams are beginning to eliminate their weaknesses in what has been an up-and-down hoops season in Robeson County.
Relying on rebounding and defense, St. Pauls and Fairmont have figured it out as both are currently riding impressive winning streaks. Fans know what to expect when the Bulldogs and Golden Tornadoes take the floor. St. Pauls attacks opposing defenses with two talented guards from the top of the perimeter while Fairmont’s goal is to take teams out of their comfort zone with constant pressure and rattling the boards.
Since the final day of the Robeson County Shootout, these two have combined to win 11 of their last 12 games. They’ll meet in the first of two games prior to the Three Rivers Conference tournament on Jan. 29.
6. South Robeson (0-11, 0-1): Things aren’t going right for coach Bryan Grice and the Mustangs. Last week’s loss to Fairmont ensured South Robeson of its fourth straight losing season, one that has be defined by missed opportunities and lack of execution. In stretches, the Mustangs have played well, but they haven’t put together enough runs late in games for it to show up in the win column. One opposing coach said shortly after the break that it was shocking to see South Robeson still winless at this point of the season with so many athletes on the floor. It’s a lot easier said than done to win basketball games and that has been a grueling challenge the last few years in Rowland.
5. Purnell Swett (3-10, 1-1): Led by a furious first-half run against Scotland, Swett proved all was not lost during a 2-9 finish in the non-conference slate after the Rams evened their Southeastern Conference record to 1-1 last week. At this point of the season, all that matters is stringing together a few league victories for a program hoping to get back to the postseason for a second straight season. Swett’s strength is rebounding and that should help the Rams over the next three weeks when the SEC’s playoff seeds will be decided. Mitchell Hill is one of the area’s best on the glass, but he’ll have his hands full in the paint during the home stretch.
4. Red Springs (3-10, 0-1): The rollercoaster season continues at Red Springs for a team that can’t quite find its rhythm. The Red Devils opened the new year with a 15-point victory over Purnell Swett, arguably their best of the season, but then lost their Three Rivers opener three nights later at home to St. Pauls. It seems Red Springs has been led by a different scorer every night, not what you would expect from a guard-based offense this late in the season. Seniors Quinn Lowery and Corey Okonkwo have been tough to defend on the block, but success from the perimeter has been a longshot for the Red Devils.
3. St. Pauls (8-5, 1-0): The Bulldogs have hit their stride since a loss to Lumberton on Jan. 4 as they’ve pieced together three straight victories and doubled their win total from last season at 8-5. St. Pauls has beaten cross-town rival Red Springs twice this season — once in the non-conference — and returns to the floor Friday in a pivotal road contest with East Columbus. Travis Lemanski loves stops at the defensive end and the Bulldogs have met his request for more intensity in recent weeks. Something clicked after the uninspiring home setback to the Pirates and that’s good news for a team hoping to dethrone Fairmont atop the Three Rivers Conference.
2. Lumberton (5-9, 0-1): Now that the Pirates have found a second option to Montrae Strother with Demetri Sheridan, it’ll be interesting to see if Lumberton can, at some point, get back to .500 this season. The SEC slate has several landmines over the next nine games including two tip-offs apiece against Hoke and Richmond. Split those four and the Pirates would be in contention for the league’s regular season championship. One win over St. Pauls can be overlooked, but two? Lumberton’s head-to-head victories against the Bulldogs this season pushes the Pirates to No. 2 in the poll despite nine overall losses. We’ll see how far Lumberton has come over the next three games against the Bucks, Raiders and Scots.
1. Fairmont (11-3, 1-0): Michael Baker’s squad is the county’s hottest team, but you wouldn’t know it after talking to the veteran coach on the handful of ways they can improve. That surprising loss to Dillon, S.C. in the opening round of the Shootout has seemed to light a fire under the Golden Tornadoes who have won seven consecutive games since. Charlton Townsend’s return provides Fairmont with post presence and leadership it sorely missed during the early going. Shooters Kwinton Hinson and Shemar Barfield are among the best isolation players in the county and the duo has combined for just over 35 points per game this season. Fairmont’s ‘never satisfied’ mentality should benefit these guys in crunch time during the games that really matter.