Ponchatoula overpowers Ruston late in Division I semifinal

Senior Braylan McNeal finished with 16 points and 17 rebounds as head coach Ryan Bond looks on (Photo credit: Reggie McLeroy)

By T. Scott Boatright

LAKE CHARLES – It all came down to the play in the paint for second-seeded Ruston and third-seeded Ponchatoula as they battled for a title game berth in semifinals action Thursday night of the Division I Boys Basketball bracket at Burton Coliseum in Lake Charles.

And Ponchtoula proved to be strong in the post as the Green Wave used a fourth-quarter surge to roll to a 62-55 win over the Bearcats, denying Ruston its first chance at a state hoops title in 35 years. 

Ponchtoula’s Allen Graves took over inside, totaling 20 points and 19 rebounds – 11 on the offensive side of the court – while adding four blocked shots and seven assists.

The 6-9 Graves, who comes from a basketball family as the younger brother to former LSU men’s player Marshall Graves and current Auburn women’s player Amoura Graves, was simply unstoppable inside. 

“Graves was a huge factor on the offensive glass,” Bond said. “I thought that was the difference in the ballgame right there. When you get (only) 11 offensive rebounds, and then the charges against us, that’s something that’s been our bugaboo all year. That’s something we worked on, so you can put it on me. Boxing out, that’s something we’ll continue to work on moving forward. But I’m still proud of this team.”

Meanwhile Ruston, who had used the 3-point shot to reach the semifinals, suddenly went cold from outside against the Green Wave, hitting on only three-of-10 shots from long distance.

“In our previous two games we made 10 threes each game,” Bond said. “In the second round against East St. John and against Barbe (in the quarterfinals), we made 10 threes. Our good shooters – they didn’t have a good night. And that’s part of it. But if we clean up the offensive rebounds, if we don’t have six or seven charges, because once you get those charges they’re in the paint, so those are conceivably layups.”

But Ruston still kept things tight for much of the contest.

The Bearcats stayed within four points of the Green Wave throughout the first half, and tied things up heading into the second stanza on a Joran Parker layup with 17.5 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.

And things went the same way in that second period, with Ponchatoula twice building as much as a four-point advantage before the Bearcats battled back.

Ruston trailed 25-21 with 1:16 left in the second quarter. But Aidan Anding stopped and popped a jumper with 30.5 seconds remaining in the stanza before Braylan McNeal slammed home an Alley-Oop dunk with 2.1 seconds on the clock to send the teams into the locker rooms at halftime tied at 25-25.

“Bray was a big factor for our team,” said RHS junior Lonnie Dimmer about McNeal, who finished with 16 points and 17 rebounds. “He’s our go-to guy, our senior. Our only senior. I feel like we – the guys coming back – we have to step up next year. I feel like we’re going to be back next year.”

“The experience will help us because we’ll be used to it,” Dimmer said. “This was our first year, the first in 35 years, making it this far. We weren’t even expecting to make it this far.”

And again in the third quarter Ponchatoula managed no more than a four-point lead at 32-28 on a Graves dunk with 3:18 left before the fourth quarter until a free throw with 1:43 remaining put the Green Wave on top 37-35

A three-point play by McNeal on a layup and free throw cut Ponchtoula’s lead to 37-35 heading into the fourth quarter.

And that’s when the Green Wave used a flood of free throws to decide things, hitting 19 consecutive throws before finally missing one with 9.1 seconds remaining.

Ponchatoula finished with a 92 free-throw percentage, hitting on 25-of-27 shots from the charity stripe.

“When you put them at the line – and I know we had to foul some at the end – when you put them at the line like that, and it didn’t come down to the referees, I disagreed with a call or two but thought they did a fair job. But when they’re knocking down their free throws like they did, and we didn’t shoot bad from the line – 20-of-21 – that makes it tough.”

After the game, Bond remained strong and encouraged his team to do the same.

“The kids, what they’ve done this year, I told them in the locker room afterwards that this is the first time in 35 years that a Ruston High School team has been to the Final Four,” Bond said. “There’s been a lot of good players come through Ruston High School since 1988. And there are some good players in that locker room. 

“There are some good players coming back – Braylan McNeal is the only senior we have. He’s been tremendous for our program, one of the all time greats at Ruston High. We’ve had a lot of players come through here the last 35 years – Division I players. Professional athletes. And they didn’t get here. So these kids can hold their heads high.”