Since the end of the holiday break, the Lakewood High School varsity boys basketball team has turned in a string of impressive performances, including a 10-point victory over Manning and a 77-48 dismantling of Hartsville. Friday's 66-49 victory over Lugoff-Elgin continued the trend, and head coach Bryan Brown said he likes what he's seeing from his team since the holiday break.
"We did some bonding at our two tournaments, and since we left, we had some meetings and some things happened with our team and it's been magical for us," said Brown, whose Gators improved to 9-7 on the season and 1-1 in Region VI-4A. "I think we're playing our best basketball and playing our best basketball at the right time.
"We're missing five seniors from last year who all contributed to the team and the leadership and experience they brought to the team," Brown said. "We've got a lot of new players, and it took us a while to gel. We had to find our identity and our chemistry, bond and build together, and we did a good job of that and now our guys are playing the way we need them to play."
The Gators got a big dose of senior leadership from 6-foot, 6-inch power forward Akeem Lawson, who contributed a double-double with 24 points and 12 rebounds in Friday's victory. Juwan Perdue added 13 and senior point guard Grant Singleton added 10.
"We've been looking for him to come around all year," Brown said of Lawson. "He's finally arrived, and we're so happy because he makes us better when he plays the way he can play. He's made some adjustments to his game, and he's peaking at the right time."
Lakewood came out strong in the first half, jumping out to an 11-2 lead and built the lead to 20-10 after the first quarter, which saw a pair of electrifying moments, a soaring alley-oop dunk from Perdue and an authoritative block by Quentin Hodge, tarnished by technical fouls called on the players for taunting. Brown rested his starters for much of the second quarter and held on to a 33-24 halftime lead after a bit of sloppy play.
The Demons were no match for Lakewood's starters, who returned in the third stanza and rebuilt the lead to 51-34 by the end of the third period, and the Gators coasted the rest of the way.
"We're not used to playing that way," Brown said of his team's electric start. "It was a very exciting game with a lot of highlight plays, and the guys just aren't used to that. I was excited on the bench, and I think everybody was, and we had some things happen to us that caused us to lose our momentum. We got in foul trouble, but we came back in the second half with the same momentum and got us back where we wanted to be."
Lakewood, ranked No. 8 in the first Basketball Coaches Association's Top 10 poll, will take on York Prep in the Martin Luther King Bash on Monday at Eau Claire High School in Columbia before traveling to face archrival Crestwood on Friday.
Brown said the ranking wasn't much of a distraction for his team, but felt like the Gators were living up to it.
"I think right now we're playing like one of the best teams in the state," Brown said. "I think we'll surprise a lot of people in the near future."
Kevon Roberson had 15 points and Bradwin Salmond added 13 for Lugoff-Elgin, which suffered only its third loss of the season against 11 wins and sits at 1-1 in Region VI-4A.
In the girls game, Lakewood held Lugoff-Elgin scoreless through much of the first half, building a 15-0 lead and never looking back enroute to a 54-19 region win. With the victory, the Lady Gators improved to 6-6 on the year, 1-1 in Region VI-4A, and bounced back from consecutive close losses to Manning and Hartsville since the end of the holiday break.
"We always think we're going to win, especially in the region when it is very, very important," said Lakewood head coach Demetress Adams-Ludd. "I'm proud of the girls in closing it out, but we did have a conversation just about making sure we continue to play with the level of excellence that we expect every night, and I think the girls understand that.
"It was a little sloppy, but we're always challenging our girls to come out mentally prepared and ready to go."
Junior guard Lashala Harvin led the way for Lakewood, pouring in 18 points, most of them high-percentage baskets after Lugoff-Elgin turnovers in the second half. Ki'Ari Cain added 13 and Treasure Smalls added 11. It was the defense, however, that made for the easy win.
"One thing I can say about this team is that defensively, we've been pretty solid so far," said Adams-Ludd. "We just continue to grow in that area and I think the challenge for our team now is to come in mentally ready to get set and go."
Jayla Sullivan led the way with six points for Lugoff-Elgin, which fell to 2-12 on the season and 0-2 in Revion VI-4A.
Lakewood travels to face archrival Crestwood next Friday.