It’s no secret Jalen Benjamin is in ninth grade.
During each game, his Leesville Road peers will let everyone in the gymnasium know every time he scores. “He’s! A! Freshman!” they’ll chant.
Though Benjamin plays basketball with the spirit of a seasoned senior, he still looks and talks like the freshman he is.
The scrawny guard struggled to find the words just minutes after hitting a game-winning 3 to lift his 25th-ranked Leesville boys’ basketball team to a 60-57 win at ninth-ranked Heritage in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs.
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After Benjamin fumbled over his first few thoughts, Leesville coach Russ Frazier called a timeout in the post-game interview.
“He’s too excited,” Frazier said. “Calm down. Say what you’re thinking.”
He added, “We got freshmen in the building.”
Benjamin is still getting used to playing in the spotlight, but he’s acclimating quickly. After a game-high 20 points in a first round upset over Clayton, Benjamin once again came through for his team.
“I’ve worked my whole life to be at this stage,” Benjamin said. “All this work, it pays off.”
Most freshmen don’t play varsity basketball – Benjamin does. Most freshmen on the varsity team don’t start – Benjamin does. Most freshmen who start on the varsity team don’t ignore their veteran coach and upperclassman running mate in the waning seconds of a 57-57 playoff game to take, and make, a pull-up three – Benjamin did.
“He waved me and Alex (Hunter) off and Alex looked at me and told me, ‘Let him go.’” Frazier said.
Leesville (16-12) got the ball with 46.2 seconds remaining and held for the final shot. Benjamin went with the isolation play and hit the contested three from the left wing. That was the shot Heritage wanted.
“We wanted to keep the ball out of (Hunter’s) hands and (Jonathan) Mebane’s hands,” said Heritage coach Tilden Brill. “For Jalen to hit a shot like that, obviously you’ve got to give him credit, but that was the guy we wanted to take the shot in that situation and he hit it. He’s going to be a heck of a player.”
Heritage took a nine-point lead early in the fourth quarter and could have put Leesville away, but the Huskies (21-8) missed their chance.
“I go back and I think of some of the possessions where we missed box outs and they were able to get second chance points,” Brill said. “Those really hurt us.”
But the Pride wouldn’t go away and closed hard in the final minutes. To pull off the upset over its Cap-8 rivals, Leesville needed a complete team effort.
Start with Alex Hunter – who “put his cape on and put us on his back,” according to Frazier – and his seven points in the final quarter. Then keep looking down the roster for the contributions.
Mebane led the team with seven points in the first quarter. Ben Zemonek hit shots when the offense stagnated and grabbed key defensive boards. Patrick Rice flew in for an offensive rebound with 1:30 remaining and scored to put Leesville up three. DJ Horne came off the bench and hit a three and a floater before the buzzer in the first and second quarters. Even RJ Wilson, who didn’t score, came in and played solid post defense on the Huskies’ Jayden Gardner, who still led all scorers with 20 points.
Until the fourth quarter, Benjamin had only one field goal, a three way back in the first quarter. Then he earned two free throws on a drive and hit both. Next he hit consecutive pull-up midrange jumpers. And finally there was The Shot.
Benjamin might not be able to wax poetically about his feelings yet after a shot like that, but as the adage goes: Actions speak louder than words.