By James Butler
MCDONOUGH Ga. – One of the surprise boys basketball teams in the state this season has been Eagle’s Landing. The Eagles are off to a 16-1 start (8-1 in Region 4-AAAA) and are thinking playoffs. The 2012-13 state champs missed the playoffs a season ago as they lost to Griffin in their opening game of the Region 4-AAAA Tournament.
“We should be able to go to the state playoffs,” said Eagles senior guard Jordan Lewis. “We failed to do that last year, but this year we’ve got so many threats on our team. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t go deep in the playoffs.”
Eagle’s Landing head coach Elliott Montgomery agrees that this season’s team can be special.
“We just didn’t have ‘it,’” he said concerning last year’s team. “They didn’t have it. This year I believe we have it.”
Lewis looked to become one of the leaders and be more assertive in his final year of high school, and in Montgomery’s eyes he has done just that.
“If you’re a coach he’s your guy,” Montgomery said. “He wants to win extremely badly. Will take the game over sometimes when you don’t want him to, but when he feels like he has to take over he does. It’s worked out great.”
Lewis has been among the leaders in Class AAAA in three-point shooting and free throw shooting this season.
“He’s an all-around player,” fellow senior Antonio Gibson said. “He can do it all. [Teams] will start [focusing] on him and that will open everybody else up.”
Lewis was not always a great shooter as teams gave him open shots late last season. However, he worked to improve and turned a weakness into a strength.
“Before practice I would ask to come in and shoot on the gun,” Lewis said. “On our off days I would go to the gym and shoot. Even if I didn’t have a goal I would shoot […] to keep my form right.”
“It’s made us better,” Montgomery said.
Gibson, an all-state wide receiver in football, also has taken his game to another level.
“I feel more confident because I’m a senior,” Gibson said. “I’ve been there. I’ve known coach Montgomery since I was a freshman. I know what he wants and expects from me.”
Gibson’s first year playing varsity basketball was last season, and according to Montgomery, he has had a smoother transition from the gridiron to the hardwood this season.
Lewis (17.4 ppg) and Gibson (10.5 ppg) are two of the Eagles’ double-digit scorers, but Eagle’s Landing is more than a dynamic duo. The Eagles deploy an 11-12 man rotation. That depth showed up big in wins over Eastside and Henry County. The Eastside game was tied 32-32 at halftime before Eastside grew tired and Eagle’s Landing won 76-49. Eagle’s Landing trailed Henry County by nine points halftime before coming back to win 96-83.
Senior point guard Malek Green was instrumental in erasing the deficit to Henry County with his driving and finishing abilities. Green, who is playing basketball for the first time since his freshman season, was inserted into the starting lineup earlier in the season. Another senior recently inserted into the lineup was 6-foot-2 center Khalil Smith. Smith played a total of three minutes in the first six games, but now is starting because of his play and communication skills on defense.
“He really is the anchor of my defense,” Montgomery said. “I can play him with my three freshmen. I can’t play [any other center] with my three freshmen.”
Those three freshmen are 6-foot-6 power forward/center Malachi Rhodes, 6-foot-3 guard Christopher Hood, and point guard Rashad Elloie. Elloie started at point guard before Green and pleased Montgomery with his contribution to several earlier wins.
“I had to put [Green] in for Elloie just because of his defense,” Montgomery, who likes Elloie shot-making, said.
Also, sophomores Tarrence Evans and Jacob Durmveil, and juniors Zane Walker and Keshon Davis are regular contributors for Eagle’s Landing. Evans is the Eagles’ third double-digit scorer (10.8 ppg) and is also their defensive stopper, guarding the opposing teams’ best player; while Davis is a lights-out shooter whose shooting help Eagle’s Landing win the Chuck Miller Holiday Classic.
Montgomery has to constantly temper his expectations for this season’s team because they rely on so many underclassmen.
“I have to remind myself that these kids are 14 and 15 years old,” he said. “I put a little too much pressure on them sometimes. They are still kids. […] I have to accept what they are going to give me.”
Eagle’s Landing gained valuable experience over the summer and fall, beating teams like Columbia and McIntosh and St. Francis. Still, it’s only loss of the season, a 75-61 defeat at the hands two-time defending Class AAAA champion Jonesboro, has taught them a lot about themselves and their competition.
“Losing to them just let us know we weren’t the best so we need to work harder,” Gibson said.
Jonesboro also made the Eagles realize they have to work smarter.
“They made us change the way we play defense,” Montgomery said. “They are the best team currently in 4A. The [good] part is we got them in the region.
“Going forward in the region I believe we have to stay focus. We score points, that’s not the issue. How we’re going to rebound, defense is a part of rebounding, that is our issue. We’re not really big, but you better not let us get that ball because we’re gone after that.”
And they are hoping to go all the way to a state title.