After graduating a pair of four-year players and seeing one returning starter suffer a serious injury before the season, Lakeview Academy boys basketball coach Todd Cottrell knew most of his kids would be forced to take on unfamiliar roles early in the year.
Seven games into the campaign, Cottrell is impressed with how well they’ve handled it all.
The Lions proved their new pieces fit together just fine Thursday night, combining solid team defense with a balanced scoring effort in their 60-53 win against East Jackson at the Walters Athletic Center in Gainesville.
“We gel together great,” said senior forward Alec Bornhorst, who finished just shy of a double-double with 15 rebounds and nine points. “The new faces have really picked it up and bought into what we’re doing, and we get along really well.”
Five Lakeview Academy players scored seven or more points, led by senior guard Drew Cottrell with 17. Junior guard Blake McIntyre posted 13 points in his debut game for the Lions (4-3) following his move from Mill Creek High, and senior guard Jack Blackburn had six assists.
Lakeview Academy needed every bit of production after watching their 20-point fourth-quarter lead shrink to just four in the waning seconds.
“(East Jackson) is a good team, a gritty team, and they took us out of our comfort zone at times,” Todd Cottrell said. “I thought we adjusted well enough, but not soon enough. But this was good for us. We’ve got to learn that we can’t go on cruise control when we’ve got a big lead.”
The guard-oriented Lions built that lead from the opening tip, scoring the game’s first nine points and finishing the first quarter ahead 17-6.
McIntyre hit the first of his three treys midway through the second quarter to put Lakeview Academy up by 18 points, but the Class 3A Eagles (10-2) soon answered. They forced four turnovers late in the half to cut their deficit to 32-18 before Drew Cottrell drilled a 3-pointer with about four seconds until the buzzer.
East Jackson, however, made another push to open the third quarter. The Eagles’ press caused problems and allowed them to get within 11 points, and Xavier Clark produced seven of his 11 points in the period.
But the Lions closed the quarter on a 13-4 run, sparked by eight straight points from McIntyre. The 5-foot-9 junior knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers then exploded past a defender in the lane for a difficult layup as his team gained a 50-30 edge.
“My teammates did a great job of getting me the ball,” McIntyre said. “We’re always looking for the best shots. It’s never anything specifically for Drew or me or anyone else. We’re always looking for the best shot for the team.”
Those were difficult to come by in the fourth quarter, during which Lakeview Academy had just one field goal and committed eight turnovers — most notably giving the ball away on four straight possessions. East Jackson’s Kobe Haley, who recorded a team-high 14 points, sank a pair of late 3-pointers to help cut the Lions’ lead to 54-50 with 25 seconds to play.
Todd Cottrell said his team simply quit attacking the Eagles’ press and “played not to lose.”
Yet Lakeview Academy benefited from East Jackson’s 8-of-18 mark at the free throw line while taking care of business themselves at the charity stripe. The Lions hit six straight free throws to seal the victory after dribbling out a large chunk of the final two minutes.
“They did a great job of never going away,” Drew Cottrell said of East Jackson. “But I’m proud of the team and how we came together when things weren’t going our way. We pulled together and got it done.”
And they did it without the full services of senior forward Evan Pitts, who’s still easing his way back into action after breaking his hand prior to the season.
He saw the court for just a few minutes in Lakeview Academy’s previous game and has practiced only twice since returning. The 6-foot-4 Pitts managed one basket while playing for about a two-minute spurt in each quarter and sporting a wrapped brace on his hand.
It’s unclear how healthy he’ll be for next week’s Lanierland tournament, which the Lions open against Chestatee at 1:30 p.m. Thursday on their home court.
But if Lakeview Academy’s revamped roster continues developing at its current pace, Todd Cottrell’s squad will be a tough out in the Hall County tournament no matter how much production Pitts can give.
“A lot of our kids are having to play different and new roles for us,” the fifth-year coach said. “We’re still finding our way.”