By ERIC FORTUNE
For the Star Beacon
The constant chant of “He’s coming,” “It’s coming” spelled out who the Jefferson Falcons needed to stop to pull out a victory Friday night — Asim Pleas.
Pleas nearly pulled the impossible to erase a 12-point Falcon advantage to five in one minute of work in the final minutes of a 57-52 Jefferson squeaker in All-American Conference play.
“Pleas is a very good player,” Jefferson coach Steve French said. “It was obvious every possession he was coming. We were able to get our guys in a good help position in our good shell defense.”
Though before the Falcons (5-2, 1-1) escaped with a victory, they too had to change their tempo to stay with the Leopards (3-3, 1-2) throughout the second quarter after a sluggish 9-6 deficit in the opening quarter.
The Leopards seemed to be dictating the flow of the game, but each time they had a five-point advantage, a missed shot on their next possession erased the tempo and got the Falcons into running mode as both squads went back-and-fourth in the final five minutes of the half.
“Honestly, the first half, we were up three at the half, but could have been up as many as 15,” Liberty coach Dan Bubon said. “We missed a lot of easy shots. Their big guy (6-foot-7 David Chase) was out of the game and we instead let them go on an offensive run at the end of the half. They scored well over 10 points in the last four minutes of the first half.
“Defensively, we fell asleep. When you have a chance to extend out your lead on a team, you have to take it. At some point, that team is going to make a run. We might not have put the game out of reach, but not doing that was a killer.”
Trailing 31-28, Bubon’s words rang true as the Falcons rolled off the first four buckets of the quarter to 36-31 advantage.
“I think we got on the glass,” French said. “They were getting a lot of offensive rebounds earlier which caused us to pick up fouls because of it. We challenged some guys in the locker room to box out and they got it done for us.”
It took a bucket from Pleas at the 4:06 mark to end the drought for the Leopards.
“It wasn’t good, I know that,” Bubon said. “In the third quarter, we have a cold streak and you’re in a dogfight for the rest of the game.”
Unlike the Leopards in the first half, the Falcons extended their lead to double digits with a little less than three minutes in regulation, thanks to the play of point guard Sage Cantini, who scored six of his 15 points during a stretch in the final quarter where the lead extended from 47-41 to 53-41.
“His second half was the best half of basketball I’ve seen him play,” French said. “He’s young, just a sophomore. When he started to get faceguarded, he kind of took it personally. He gets fired up when presented with a challenge. We challenged him at halftime to be a leader. He’s our floor general and he really took over with a fantastic second half. He won the game for us.”
Then, Pleas (21 points) came. After he got the Leopards within five, Lynn Bowden’s 3 with 36 seconds made it 53-52.
“We had a hellacious comeback in the last few minutes, which I was happy to see, but we were in a bad position by that point,” Bubon said.
On the next possession, Jefferson was able to get a pass out of the trap to an open Sam Hitchcock under the basket to make it three-point advantage again. The Leopards missed an open 3 on their next possession and had a near steal before watching Lucas Hitchcock preserve the victory from the charity stripe.
“We stuck with it,” French said. “We’ve already been in some close games already this year. We’ve come out on the wrong end so it was nice to see it reversed tonight.”
Fortune is a freelance writer from McDonald.