By T. Scott Boatright
It was a win 35 years in the making, but for the 2022-23 Ruston Bearcats basketball team it was more worth the wait.
For the first time since winning a 1988 Louisiana boys basketball championship, the second-seeded Ruston Bearcats earned a berth in the state Division I Nonselect School State Tournament after dominating seventh-seed Barbe from start to finish for a 70-33 win in quarterfinals action Friday night at the RHS Gym.
The Bearcats didn’t waste any time taking control. Aidan Anding popped a 3-pointer to open scoring 23 seconds into the contest and that was followed by a 3-pointer by Joran Parker and a layup by Lonnie Dimmer that gave Ruston a quick 8-0 advantage that forced Barbe to call a timeout only 2:04 into the contest.
Ruston scored the first 15 points of the contest with the Buccaneers not scoring their first points until netting two free throws at the 2:26 mark of the opening stanza as the Bearcats roared out to a 22-4 lead by the start of the second quarter.
The Bearcats didn’t allow Barbe to hit its first shot from the field until the 5:35 mark of the second quarter and by halftime Ruston had built a 40-17 advantage.
“I keep saying it … it sounds like a broken record, but this team wants to win,” said Bearcats coach Ryan Bond. “They want to win for each other. They want to play hard for each other, They want to play defense, they want to rebound, they want to do all those things.
“They’re unselfish. They’re just everything you want in a group of kids. … We push them as coaches, but they bought in and they allow us to get the most of them. They know that we care about them and want them to be champions. So I’m proud. I’m proud of these guys – not only the guys who play a lot of minutes but the guys that practice against the starters. They’re all a part of this.”
Ruston scored the first point of the second half on a Braylan McNeal free throw, but Barbe answered with five straight points before Bond called a timeout to settle his team down.
“I told them that we’ve still got to share the ball,” Bond said about what he told his Bearcats during that timeout. “We’re not coming down to zero pass and take bad shots. We’ve got to take rhythm shots. We’ve got to be balanced. And then on the defensive end, we’ve got to be down in the stance and ready.
“We knew they were going to start attacking the basket in the second (half). That’s why we went zone (defense). It wasn’t a chewing out timeout. It was a refocus timeout. And they did (refocus). And that’s why they’re special, because they can do that and they can take coaching. There’s not enough positive things you can say about these kids.”
By the end of the third quarter Ruston led 59-24, and Anding’s fourth 3-pointer for the game with 5:18 remaining gave the Bearcats a 67-30 lead and started a running clock that sent RHS into “protect and let time expire mode.”
MeNeal led the Bearcats with 21 points on the night while adding numerous blocked shots and rebounds.
“Braylan has been here since Day One with me,” Bond said. “He’s been our MVP. He’s just done so much for us, not only on offense, but on defense.”
Anding added 14 points for RHS, including four 3-pointers. But Bond said it was Anding’s defense that played such a big role for the Bearcats against Barbe.
“I’ve seen a lot from the perimeter from Aidan Anding for two years, from Joran Parker for two years,” Bond said of his team’s effort from long range. “We spend a lot of time on shooting, but it’s just not shooting at half speed. We spend a lot of time working on our shots at game speed. They focus on that and that’s been one of our strengths all year.
“No. 5 is a really good player. Aidan Anding – sometimes I don’t like putting one of our best offensive threats on the best offensive player for the other team, but Aidan’s our best perimeter defender and he set the tone. Their No. 5 couldn’t do anything. Aidan was active with his hands, he was cutting him off and getting to his left hand — I mean Aidan is the total package as far as offense, defense, classroom, Aidan is top notch.”
Anding said a pregame realization helped him have the night he turned in.
“When we were warming up, at first I was missing, but then I realized it was my off hand that was messing my shot up,” Anding said. “So after I realized that I started shooting better in warm-ups. I was feeling good and just started knocking them down.”
“The plan was for me to not let him (Barbe’s No. 5 – Jabbbari Barry, who finished with 11 points) catch the ball. Then they only had four (offensive) players, and we knew we could stop four.”
McNeal said the Bearcats (29-3) only have one focus now – next week’s semifinal game against third-seeded Ponchatoula, which defeated sixth-seeded Sulphur 62-48 Friday night.
“This is something I’ve wanted since I was a little kid, ” McNeal said. “This hasn’t happened here for decades. Now we just have to keep our focus and keep the same intensity and same energy and keep practicing hard. It’s one game at a time and we have two left.”
Bond echoed those sentiments during his post-game meeting with the press.
“This is special, but we know we have two more,” Bond said. “I didn’t have any props. I didn’t have any ladders. I didn’t have any scissors set out. I said we’re going to do what we did Tuesday (when the Bearcats defeated 15th-seed East St. John 75-35 in a regional-round contest). I said we’re the better team. We’re going to go out and play hard and execute, and we’re going to come out on top.
“And they believed it. But now we’ve got to do it two more times.”