When Leesville Road took down Clayton by 29 points, there were no surprises.
When the Pride boys’ basketball team knocked Cap-8 Conference rival Heritage out of the postseason, it was also expected.
And when Leesville Road played the top-seeded Cary to a four-point game before bowing out in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs, the Pride refused to classify it as a moral victory.
The No. 25 seed, which played three highly competitive postseason road games, feels as though it earned every battle, every win and every point.
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We’ve got a good group of kids. I’m proud of their effort. I’m proud of the way we’ve responded and did everything else. That’s all you can be.
Leesville Road boys’ basketball coach Russ Fraizer
Before the Cary matchup, Leesville Road only played four teams with losing records. Three of those came from the bottom half of the Cap-8.
Those Pride opponents with winning records had nearly 260 wins combined after the third round of playoffs (258-83). Leesville played against three one-loss teams in Cary, which ended the Pride’s season with a 54-50 win on Saturday, in Millbrook, the five-time Cap-8 champion still in the playoffs and in Fayetteville Terry Sanford, last year’s 3A champ.
The winning teams that Leesville Road faced this season are a combined 258-83 as of the third round of state playoffs.
Leesville, which finished 16-13 on the year, also faced defending 4A champion Garner, which had two losses on the year leading up to a highly anticipated, third-round bout with Millbrook.
Pride coach Russ Fraizer said his group plays in the toughest conference and has played the toughest teams. Therefore, his team is no Cinderella.
“This isn’t a moral-victory situation,” Fraizer said after Saturday’s game at Cary. Leesville freshman Jalen Benjamin scored two free throws to tie the game at 50-all with 1:16 left before the Imps pulled away.
“Cary’s got a great team,” Fraizer said. “Four-point game now, and we played them to OT at our place a couple of weeks ago. Records? You can throw the records out the window. I think our strength of schedule is something like (a) 14.8 (ranking). I think it pretty much blows the water out of everybody’s stuff on Maxpreps.
“When people are talking about Cinderella – we played the toughest teams.”
Before an at-capacity crowd in Cary Saturday night, Leesville proved it belonged. The Pride started the game with a 6-2 lead. When a Kyle Gensler 3-pointer knotted the game for Cary at 10, Leesville stayed poised and responded.
It relied on its slasher Alex Hunter, a junior guard who led the game with 24 points. He was the only player to get to the free throw line in the first half, going 5-of-5 from the stripe. The Pride looked to Ben Zemonek on the glass, the senior forward finishing with 14 points and a team-high 10 boards. They also relied on their defense.
Cary couldn’t find an open shot for more than a minute in the second quarter. Leesville was leading in the waning seconds of the first half before Cary junior Donte Tatum sank a 3-pointer to put his team ahead.
Leesville stayed afloat after halftime, forcing a few more ties before fouls began mounting. Cary shot 12-of-17 from the stripe in the second half.
While Cary made multiple trips to the line – ultimately overcoming the visitors as the Imps’ last four points to break up the late tie came off free throws – Leesville’s emotion didn’t swing in its favor, Fraizer said.
“You can’t hide your emotions with the basketball; when you’re out of control, you’re out of control,” he said. “I think that was what took us out of our momentum was emotions. This is my 10th, 11th or maybe even 12th time being in the third round as a coach. I try to remain calm because the kids were so emotional. Emotion causes silly things from executions to defensive mistakes.”
Several Pride players experienced their first playoff run this season. Though six seniors will depart, the team can return a core of juniors and freshmen, including Hunter, the Cap-8 co-player of the year and junior forward Jonathan Mebane, an all-conference selection.
(The freshmen) have worked hard to be in their position. They earned a varsity basketball spot, then they worked to get better to get minutes. They’re not just building blocks for the future – they’re the present.
Leesville got contributions from freshmen Benjamin, D.J. Horne and R.J Wilson in the Cary matchup.
“We definitely have some good freshmen coming up, and they can really play,” Hunter said. “Now that they’ve got this experience, it’s been a good first season for them, and I think we have a chance to go further next year. This season has been a lot of ups and downs. When we finally hit rock bottom, that’s when we built. That’s how we got this far, the experience of playing games and getting blown out.”
Leesville’s largest margin of loss was a 26-point setback at Millbrook in the first cycle of the regular-season series.
“I think that’s what brought us this far,” Hunter said. “It’s a big statement. It’s been a roller coaster, and I wouldn’t have wanted to (do) it with anybody else.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan