Slow starts have been a pest for Morton Ranch this season. That was the case again Tuesday, when the Mavericks, VYPE’s No. 2-ranked team in the city of Houston, fell behind by 13 points a little more than halfway through the first quarter against No. 3-ranked Shadow Creek.
But like most of its games this season, the lethargic opening stanza was but a temporary obstacle for Morton Ranch. Down 18-7 at the end of the first quarter, the Mavericks outscored the Sharks 50-31 the rest of the way to earn a 57-49 win at home, improving to 8-2 and dropping Shadow Creek to 8-2.
“We’re trying to overcome this problem of starting off slow,” Morton Ranch coach Khris Turner said. “We tell them all the time about how that puts us in a hole right away. But, at the same time, we refused to quit. That’s what I love about my boys. I’m lucky to have a group that believes in not quitting. They live it. It’s a culture that’s feeding even into the new people we have.”
Those new people made a difference, particularly late in the game. But throughout a contest in which the quality of play and effort didn’t quite live up to the hype, a familiar face was the steadying influence for the Mavericks.
Junior guard L.J. Cryer, averaging 31 points on 56-percent shooting entering the game, was held scoreless in the first quarter, taking just three shots. But he woke up in the second quarter, scoring 11 points, and then engineered a stirring comeback in the second half, finishing with a game-high 27 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range.
“They were playing really good help defense that first quarter, but I wasn’t really being aggressive,” Cryer said. “I could have attacked more. Second quarter, I just came out with a more attacking mindset.”
Cryer blamed his lack of assertiveness for his subpar start. Turner said it was simply his star player studying the game and waiting for his moment to take over.
Cryer won the matchup against Shadow Creek’s own premier backcourt talent in senior guard Tyron Henry, a Hartford verbal commit. Henry scored 17 points, nine coming on free throws.
“Every game, I take it all the same,” Cryer said. “I feel like I always have to prove I’m the best player. It’s not about proving something to the other guy. I’ve got to prove something to myself.”
How did he think he fared Tuesday?
“I felt I did pretty good,” Cryer said in an impressive understatement.
Cryer scoring a lot of points in a Morton Ranch win is nothing new. But a deep, athletic supporting cast coming up with big plays late for the Mavs is.
Senior guard Isaiah Babalola, a transfer from Katy, had a breakout performance with nine points, four rebounds and three assists. With Morton Ranch ahead by two points late during the fourth quarter, it was Babalola who caught the ball deep on the perimeter, blew past his defender, drew another defender and dished off to 6-foot-10 center Eddie Lampkin for a backbreaking dunk with a couple minutes remaining.
“L.J.’s the best player in the class of 2020, so he makes everyone else’s job a lot easier,” Babalola said. “With him and Eddie, we’ve got two of the best players in the country.”
Other newcomers like senior forward Tre Elrod Jr. (five points, four rebounds, a block) and junior wing Adrian Caldwell (two points, four rebounds) had big moments as well.
“I trust my teammates to make plays with the ball,” Cryer said. “Guys like Isaiah, I’m glad he came. Overall, we’ve got more guys who can score the ball. We’re more athletic now. We play for each other.”
Strategically, the Mavericks eventually countered the Sharks’ advantage on the glass by pressing and forcing quick, ill-advised shots while generating more transition opportunities. Now instead of just Cryer and junior wing Westley Sellers as the lone threats on the break, Morton Ranch boasts a slew of players that can get to the rim and break down a defense.
“Life is easier on the court,” Lampkin said. “Now we’ve got more athletes, and we’re just a tougher team.”
Indeed, there is much for Turner to be proud of 10 games into the season. Tuesday’s win showed promise in finishing, if not starting.
“I like the way we’re going, but we need to pick it up more,” Lampkin said. “Tonight, we slacked. Then we picked it up. We finished it. Got that ‘W.’”