Not even two months after souring Spruce Mountain’s then-undefeated football season on its way to another regional championship, Leavitt — with much of the Hornets’ lineup still visibly hobbled from that journey — handed the Phoenix their first boys’ basketball loss as a member of the KVAC, 51-49, on Monday night.
This one was much a bigger upset. Although it presumably is moving up in rank from the Class C-dominated MVC, Spruce Mountain (2-1) welcomed back the lion’s share of its talent from a 16-win tournament team.
“That’s as good a basketball win as we’ve had in a while, at least a couple years,” said Mike Hathaway, who coaches both marquee programs at Leavitt. “It’s a credit to the guys that we have. It was an uphill battle, and they didn’t back down from it.”
Spruce also had the best player on the court in 6-foot-2 slasher Deonte Ring, who was explosive as ever with 25 points, five rebounds, four steals and three assists. But Leavitt (3-1) held him to seven points in the second half and lured him into his fifth foul with 1:12 remaining.
Gabe Seeley sank both ensuing free throws to give the Hornets a 48-45 lead, beginning a stretch in which he drained 5 of 6 from the line to seal it.
“I just had to calm down a little bit. Coach has a way of calming me down and keeping me cool,” Seeley said. “We’re still kind of beat up, but it feels really good to get this one.”
Isaiah Calder finished with 15 points to lead Leavitt, which won its third consecutive game and avenged a 2013 playoff loss to Spruce Mountain in the teams’ only previous hardwood meeting.
Seeley and Korey Caito each added nine points. Caito, who came back after missing much of the third quarter with a bloody nose, made four steals. Eli Calder contributed eight points and six thefts. Mitchel Davis blocked four first-half shots to go with his six points.
“Mike’s got some champions. They are champions and they play like champions. We’re not there,” Spruce Mountain coach Scott Bessey said. “Champions make plays when they need to be made, and pretenders don’t. We’ve always been on the pretenders’ side. We talk tough, but until you make plays in games that count, that’s what champions do. You can tell they’ve got the mental toughness.”
Leavitt won by getting the better of a wild, frenetic, turnover-and-layup-filled second quarter, and by otherwise controlling the game with its half-court, 1-2-2 zone.
The configuration dared Spruce Mountain to drain outside shots, and the Phoenix couldn’t, connecting at a 35 percent clip complicated by 20 turnovers. They also went a woeful 7-of-18 from the line.
Ring, who erupted for 14 points in the second quarter, hit the first two of three free throws after he was fouled beyond the arc to give the Phoenix their last lead, 26-25, with 2:06 remaining in the first half.
Isaiah Calder triggered a closing 8-1 run with a 3-pointer. Caito capped it, first with a steal and a layup, then a traditional 3-point play off Calder’s steal.
“We wanted to get out in transition as much as we could offensively, because they’re so good with their traps defensively,” Hathaway said. “With that much pressure, we knew we were going to have to run to score, but we also knew we wouldn’t be able to press them, because if it got into a track meet we’d be in trouble.”
James Ouellette hit a free throw to pull the Phoenix within six, 33-27, at the half, and Austin Darling got the second half going with a 3-pointer for Spruce.
It was almost six minutes until the next Phoenix field goal, however. Isaiah Calder’s 3-point play and baskets by Seeley, Davis and D’Andre James stabilized the Leavitt lead at 42-35 with eight minutes to go.
Ring picked up his third and fourth fouls one minute on each side of that checkpoint.
“He’s got a lot of good moves around the basket,” Seeley said. “We just had to close out and get a lot of help on the baseline. Our defense really turned it up tonight.”
Ring and Anthony York (12 points, six rebounds) supplied all the offense during a 7-0 surge that nearly pulled it out of the fire for the Phoenix. Spruce Mountain missed four shots on a potential tying possession with under three minutes to go.
“Leavitt did what they had to do to win the game. They had to sit in that half-court 1-2-2 and force us to make shots, and we’re just not mentally tough enough yet to knock them down in a big game. That’s been our nemesis since they were freshmen and sophomores,” Bessey said. “If we can’t turn people over, we’re going to struggle. If we’re not on, we’re going to struggle, and we haven’t been on this year yet.”
As for the Hornets, expectations are slowly rising after a preseason that started a week late under the specter of a 62-14 loss to Winslow in the football state game.
“We knew tonight we were the team that didn’t have a lot of pressure on us, so we tried to come out and play hard and play together,” Hathaway said. “The big thing is that core of guys is sticking together. Those four seniors that start, those guys are giving us great leadership and great effort, every day.”