Holding a 10-point lead over West Monroe at halftime, Ruston High School boys basketball coach Ryan Bond knew what his Bearcats were in store for after intermission Tuesday night at the RHS Main Gym.
“We knew they were going to come out strong in the third quarter,” Bond said. “We didn’t know they were going to score five right off the bat and 21 in the quarter, but we knew.”
And in the closing seconds, the Bearcats found themselves down by a point. But an offensive rebound followed by a quick, short jumper by Jackson Pilgreen put Ruston on top with 12 seconds left. West Monroe’s desperation 3-point attempt before the final horn sounded clanged harmlessly off the rim as the Bearcats (16-3, 3-0) began celebrating a 54-53 win over the Rebels.
Pilgreen had a big role in the contest, simply because of shortened playing time.
He was pulled early on in the first half after committing two fouls. He was back out on the court to start the third quarter but picked up his third foul only 21 seconds into the stanza.
After West Monroe scored the first five points of the second half, Bond called a timeout before sending Pilgreen back to the court.
“I want to trust guys in that situation,” Bond said. “Jackson’s a senior and he’s been through it. I think part of it is that it’s a learning process for a team that still needs to realize that when the referees called it tight in the first half, they better back up a little bit. These refs didn’t call it like our last game at Ouachita. That game was a lot more physical. But we’ve got to learn to play with foul trouble and play through that.”
Ruston moved out to a six-point advantage at 29-23 at the 5:42 mark of the third quarter, but when Pilgreen was called for his fourth foul of the contest only 13 seconds later, Bond again had to call his 6-7 center back to the bench, changing his strategy.
“It changed a lot about the game because I like to throw it inside and put pressure on the defense,” Bond said. “But that made us spread it out more. We had a couple of guys who didn’t shoot the ball as well as they had been. Of course I would have been disappointed if we had lost. Our effort was there. I’m just glad we were able to pull it out in the end.”
Bond said that a long period of time not playing a game in their home gym and then playing a district rival before a big crowd took some getting used to.
“We hadn’t been at home in a long time,” Bond said. “We hadn’t played here at home since early December. So we’re not used to a big crowd here. We hadn’t had that this season until tonight. We’re not used to the band because it had been so long.
“When you’re at home and have a good crowd, you’re going to play a little bit faster. You’re going to shoot a little bit faster. You’re going to drive a little bit faster. You’re going to be more aggressive on defense, and that gets you out of your rhythm.
At several points in the game Bond focused on using his hands to tell his team to slow down.
“I could just see it,” Bond said. “There’s a time to go, and a time to (slow), on both ends of the floor. There’s a time to get after somebody, but if you have somebody pinned down in a corner, you don’t need to run over and whack them and get a foul called on you. This is going to be a good film to watch and learn from. Both the players and us coaches. But I’m just proud of our effort. And team effort is what overcame cold shooting and foul trouble tonight.”
The Rebels tied the game at 35-35 with 58 seconds remaining in the third quarter and took a 39-37 advantage into what would be a back-and-forth final stanza that featured three ties and neither team building more than a three-point led West Monroe took on a Jadais Richard layup with 2:36 left on the clock.
Ruston moved back on top at 52-51 on a running baseline jumper by Aiden Anding, but the Rebels countered with a layup by Dakota Gasca to take a 54-53 lead with 42 seconds left.
Anding tried to return the lead to the Bearcats as the clock wound down but missed his jumper.
But Pilgreen was right there to grab the rebound in front of the rim and quickly launch it through the net for the game-winning shot.
“He got some good rebounds at the end,” Bond said about Pilgreen. “He was in position and not jumping up in the air. And then he made the big shot when we needed it.”
Jay Lillard topped the Bearcats with 18 points on the night while Braylan McNeal chipped in with 14 and Anding totaled 10.
Richard led West Monroe with 22 points while Gasca added 14 for the Rebels.
The Bearcats, now 16-3 overall and 3-0 in District 2-5A, will next play at West Ouachita on Friday night.