Speight spurs Mustangs over La Plata at Rte. 175 Classic
To run off with its third victory of the still-young season, Meade waded through a thick, tangled vegetation that was the La Plata defense. That’s why they needed a machete.
Through play-setting and a team-high scoring total, junior TJ Speight guided the young hosts over the Warriors 59-48, in the Route 175 Classic tournament.
Speight (23 points) knew he’d inherit the Mustangs’ reins after seniors Mahzi Thames and Tre Dunn, who both regularly led Meade (3-3) at the basket, graduated.
Just one month into the season, Speight can see coherency of his somewhat inexperienced squad, beginning to take shape out of practice and on the court.
“We could be a way better team than we are. We’re real young, but we can learn,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of athletic people on the team.”
Speight lit the torch in the first quarter, hooking in a pair of layups that spurred Meade before La Plata could shake off its shooting cobwebs.
Surrounding the junior was a scoring effort from a committee of marionets, with Speight pulling the strings. Nearly every Mustang on the floor contributed to a ball in the basket, after Speight set the play.
Speight, who’d always been one to hit the gas if he could last winter, broke away from the Warriors at one beat too, zipping across the court, flipping a pass to junior forward Jaden Cobb, who dropped it in.
“He’s a leader that knows when to be positive and also when to get on people, and I’m really, really proud of the way he’s taken the leadership role,” Meade coach Mike Glick said of Speight. “He’s taken every team’s best shot. Every team’s geared around him, trying to stop him.”
A minute before the buzzer, the Mustangs padded up a 10-point advantage, but just before the second quarter, Meade’s primary antagonist rolled up onto the perimeter and drained his 3-pointer.
The Warriors’ Stalin Oaks set fires everywhere he ran with the ball in the second half, and it was difficult for Meade to douse them all in time. And while Oaks popped in a pair of layups, which he capped off with a steal and another 3-pointer, the Mustangs moved through La Plata’s defense like they were walking knee-deep in snow.
When someone’s coached as long as Glick has, it’s not wholly uncommon to run across former members of his coaching staff who, of course, know exactly how to run a zone against their former mentor’s offense. La Plata coach Spencer Way, who served for over a decade under Glick at Gwynn Park, qualified.
“It’s always tough when you’re coaching against one of your former assistants – he knows what you’re running better than my players know what they’re running,” Glick said. “He did a great job, for a very well-played game.”
Though the Mustangs managed two treys of their own before halftime, helping to maintain an eight-point lead as time expired, many of their would-be shots fizzled in the fray of La Plata guards, who rushed Meade shots, blocked attempted layups and monopolized rebounds.
“We had to do a better job of passing and not dribbling; I thought we were trying to dribble too much,” Glick said. “We also missed some really short shots that, if we were able to make some of those shots, it’s going in a different direction.”
With all of its early-third quarter action limited to the foul line, Meade turned to its leader to steer the ship back on course – especially as the center La Plata’s offense, Oaks, flung a pass to a teammate without even looking to close the gap to four points, and teammate Joseph Cottle shaved it down to just one with his own 3-pointer.
“They’re just trying to follow behind me, whatever I do. They follow me,” Speight said. “If I’m not a leader, everybody on the team’s gonna fall.”
Speight hurled in a layup to give Meade a little space to breathe on the scoring board, and then, stripped La Plata of its ball, hurtled up the entire court and dropped in another.
After Cottle tried to open another La Plata run with a bucket from beyond the arc, Speight nipped it in the bud with another field goal, which senior Meikhi Adams complimented with his own three-point shot.
[More from sports] Kluh battles back from multiple knee injuries to lead Villanova into NCAA Tournament »
The Mustangs practiced navigating heavy coverage repeatedly in practice, putting something over the hoop to hinder their shots, training the players to box out more, amp up their aggressiveness.
Speight made sure that energy was put in action.
“We had to shade the zone to the shooters,” Speight said. “They had a couple shooters that could shoot. … Don’t let them shoot, because obviously, they were hitting. Everybody boxes out their man, one person runs out for a bunny layup.”
As Meade carved out more room to move in the paint offensively, it needed to handle La Plata’s hottest shooter, too, if it wanted to put enough space between them in the fourth quarter.
For that, it enlisted guards Josh Bishop and Nick Haylock.
The two smothered Oaks, limiting his action to a single layup and a trio of free throws.
“They’re our best two defenders on the team. Without them,” Speight trailed off. “They’re soldiers. That’s their role. They know how to shove people down. Whoever their best player, that’s who they’ve got.”
It didn’t hurt to pepper in some free points either. Speight pulled opportunities at the foul line like he’d dunked himself in glue; La Plata players just kept sticking to him, and fouling, giving the junior guard the chance to post seven points of what ended up becoming an 11-point margin by game’s end.
“I’m proud of the way we battled. We were resilient and we got better tonight,” Glick said. “Christmas is all about getting better. Our goal’s just to get better and better, and to try and play your best basketball in March.”