LIVE OAK — Suwannee High allowed two games to slip away in the second half, losing to Rutherford 59-51 and to Bay 51-45, over the holiday break.
Previously the Bulldogs lost to Class 4A No. 7 Godby by one point. Although both losses are to powerhouses Rutherford (No. 8) and Bay (No. 17), a quality win is needed for the 6-7 Bulldogs to help their chances for an at-large bid in the playoffs, provided they don’t win districts. That didn’t happen last week when Suwannee lost to Gadsden County 53-49 in a district contest.
“We’re not quite a fourth-quarter team yet, and what I mean by that is that the level of urgency and chippiness raises in the fourth,” Bulldog coach Malcolm Pollock said. “The speed of the game sorta rises and we haven’t quite understood what it takes to play at that level. Either it’s A) We’re tired and so we don’t do things right late in the game, or B) We get complacent and we’re not playing at the level we need in the fourth quarter.”
Pollock explained that “chippiness,” in the fourth means that’s when the game becomes more physical. And that if the Bulldogs were better in the fourth, the team could be “10-2, which is more realistic for the amount of talent we have.
“That’s when the games gets rowdy, and the refs allow a little more physicality and aggressiveness; we haven’t got to that level,” he said. “Because that’s the fourth or fifth time we’ve gone into the fourth either leading or down by three or less and failed what we need to do to win. And I see some tendencies I noticed that toward the end of practice we wane, and if you wane toward the end of practice, you will wane in games. It translates.”
Pollock added that part of the issue is that he has “a bunch of nice kids” on the team.
“The biggest thing is to make the practice environment tougher than the game, and I don’t know if it is,” Pollock said. “Not because I’m not making it tough, but because we’re not full-fledged competing in practice like ‘I want to take your spot, I want your minutes, I want to make you better;’ that type of environment. And if that’s the type of competition you have in practice that makes the game easy, but we’re not there yet. A fourth-quarter team competes in practice, a fourth-quarter team doesn’t mind if you get chippy in practice, they raise their level of play, they get the person in front of them better, and they challenge each other. That way when you get in game situations you’re conditioned for it. That’s the next step we need to take for us to become a respected program, and a couple key wins.”
Key wins needed for this season continued with another district matchup against Baker County on Monday night.
Suwannee is 1-2 in districts and Gadsden is 2-0. The Bulldogs will travel to Godby on Jan. 22, but host Columbia this Saturday.
“I told the guys today that the way districts are set up you don’t have any time to let games slip away from you. If we want to make a run to the playoffs, we have to get some key victories,” Pollock said. “You can’t just win the games your favored to win, we have to knock of some people to rise in the rankings because it’s all a ranking system now. The better your rank is, the better opportunity to go to districts.”
Pollock said that the purpose of the playoff system is to make the postseason more competitive.
“We’re going to play some easier games but we’re going to play some tough games that would give us some opportunity to jump over some of those schools with easy schedules,” he said. “But if you don’t win any tough games, there’s no point in playing them. So we have to put together a couple tough wins; wins against Godby, Columbia, and Gainesville will help us a ton if we can beat those four teams. Even three of four would help.”
Suwannee’s Tyree Taylor had 15 points against Rutherford, though he wasn’t impactful in the Bay loss.
“Taylor has been the most consistent for us the last six games. He was a little off against Bay, but he’s been averaging about 15 points a game,” Pollock said. “I think he made four 3s against Rutherford, where he’s shooting about 38%, which is really good for a high school kid.”
Taylor said he knows the Bulldogs are having letdowns in the fourth.
“In the fourth we’re choking,” he said. “I need to be a vocal leader and tell the team to step it up in the fourth.
“I think I’m playing great now, but I have to get my teammates more involved in the game.”
Taylor credits extra practice, which is shooting on his own after team practice, with helping hm get better. And what Taylor means by teammates is everybody on the team, not just what Pollock calls his “three-headed monsters;” starters Taylor, Tyrece Freeman and Nicolas McClain.
“We’re still not clicking yet, and if we ever put together a game where the 3-headed monster gets going, and good contributions come from your bench, I think we can be dangerous,” Pollock said. “Right now we have about four or five guys scoring and Godby had eight players scoring. We need to get more contributions from players outside of our main guys. But all three of those guys can average up to 15 points a game. And if they can do that, that’ll make us better. But I love their unselfish play. They share the ball, almost to a fault.”
Pollock said McClain played well against Rutherford, but better against Bay. Freeman came out of “a rut,” and scored 18 against Bay, and 6-foot-1 sophomore Ryndarius Wheeler came off the bench to play good.
“Ryndarius shot it well in the first game, he hit two big 3s and played some good defense, and I anticipate he’ll be a really good player for us the next couple years, which is what I’m hoping for,” Pollock said. “It’s funny because after the second game we were at Golden Corral and he was watching film of college basketball on his phone. You have the youngest guy on the team watching film, and he showed me a couple plays. I got to see where his mind is at. I’m pretty hard on him, hopefully he’ll see my intent is good. I assumed he was listening to music, and I thought that was interesting because we just finished playing a game and most of my other guys were listening to music or talking.”
The Bulldogs were better against higher-rated Rutherford, and were only down by three with a 1:30 left.
“I think we were more prepared for them than they were for us. I had film on them and scouted them pretty well, and with Lincoln (where Pollock coached previously) we played against them.
So I was pretty familiar with their team and their coach and their style of play. I think we switched it up enough on them to keep them guessing, and they never got comfortable, and again, we didn’t show up in the fourth,” Pollock said. “Up until the fourth they had made only one three, and they made three 3s the entire game; two of those in the fourth were big-time 3s. Late in the game, they had a really good shooter that we left open twice and he hit both, but I think we met their physicality.”
The Bulldogs could be in a good position for playoffs if they win the rest of their district games left.
“Even if we can knock off two of the three, that will put us in a good seeding for districts,” Pollock said. “That’s my goal, I want to make the playoffs this year with this team because I think we’re good enough to do that, and it gives the younger guys something to chase. We’re trying to pierce this thing together, but we know it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t happen on one night, or over a year.”