By Kyle Roberts
Now currently standing at No. 2 in the Non-Select Division I Power Rankings, the Ruston Bearcats (16-1) extended their win streak to nine in a row after sweeping two games at the West Monroe tournament this week.
The Bearcats first took a 61-44 win over the Wossman High School Wildcats on Thursday and followed with a 64-31 win over Calvary Baptist on Friday. Wossman is currently ranked No. 2 in the Non-Select Division II Power Rankings, while Calvary Baptist is ranked No. 2 in the Select Division III Power Rankings.
“We decided to go to the West Monroe tournament because we knew that there were high quality teams there,” Ruston head coach Ryan Bond said. “I told (West Monroe head coach Kyle) Hill that I wanted to be put against any of those teams. I was very impressed with our guys and our focus throughout possessions for the most part and the way we finished offensive sets and plays, along with defensive possessions by getting rebounds.”
The Bearcats knocked down eight three-pointers against Wossman on Thursday and followed with five the next night against Calvary Baptist.
“I was a little worried that the break would bring us back rusty,” Bond said. “We had practiced a couple of days before, and it was a little rough. But we did a lot of film prep and scouting, and the guys just feed off of that and really learn from it. There’s a certain confidence level they have when they go out; the guys went out there prepared. I thought we shot the ball well, which we hadn’t done in practice the days after break. But I told them that the shots would fall in the tournament, and they did.”
Bond spoke highly of the effort Ruston gave against Wossman and recalled his first encounter with the Wildcats at their tournament in his inaugural season at the helm for the Bearcats.
“Anytime you can go up against Wossman and handle their pressure, it’s good,” Bond said. “I’m reflective of my first year when we lost to them by 60 points at their tournament. And then you turn around and see where our program is now; it’s a real testament to our kids.”
Junior guard Jay Lillard led the way in scoring for Ruston on Thursday with a 17-point effort and finished 8-of-10 from the free throw line. Senior Braylan McNeal added 16 points, while sophomore Aiden Anding totaled 11.
On Friday, it was McNeal leading the way against Calvary Baptist with 17 points, while sophomore Joran Parker put up 15 points after hitting three three-pointers. Junior Lontravious Dimmer added 10 points.
“Calvary Baptist is really well coached,” Bond said. “They didn’t shoot the ball really well when we played them, but they’re a good team. We knew they’d come out with intensity, and we jumped up early and moved the ball well. We outscored them 22-7 in the first quarter and ended up 31-10 at halftime. We pushed it out from there, and it was a running clock in the fourth quarter. They are a quality program.”
With football ending, Ruston now has a complete roster heading into the New Year and onward to District 2-5A play. For Bond, the noticeable shift in cohesiveness and consistency has continually improved as the season has continued on as compared to the beginning of the year.
“Our kids are bought in, and they’re all very team-oriented,” Bond said. “We have a full squad now, and there are going to be nights were some guys don’t get playing time, but those guys practice hard against our starters and our main guys. They are just as much a part of what we’re doing as any of our starters, and I appreciate those guys so much.
“We knew McNeal was going to be our guy, but we had some other guys figuring out how they were going to consistently fit into their roles. We talk about that a lot, and we had not locked on to that yet. Now, even with the time off, the guys know what their roles are on defense and offense. To me, the best shot in basketball is ‘the next one,’ because that’s the mentality you have to have. I think we still have a long way to go with district coming up, but I like where we’re at.”
Moving forward, Ruston had originally been scheduled to play against Richwood on Tuesday, Jan. 3, but due to a scheduling error, that game will be canceled and not made up. The next game up for the Bearcats will be a road contest against Jonesboro-Hodge on Friday, Jan. 6 at 6 p.m.