The slight hint of vulnerability seems unusual coming from the bear-sized John Pearson.
“It may not look like we have the best basketball players right now,” Porter-Gaud’s coach concedes in an empty auxiliary gym inside North Charleston’s new $14 million dollar athletic center.
Porter-Gaud has undoubtedly had its share of best players over Pearson’s 12-year tenure as head coach. The back-to-back Gatorade state Player of the Year banners hanging in the school’s Wendell Center confirm that. The garnet No. 22 Khris Middleton jersey draped from the rafters just makes Pearson and Cyclones seem spoiled.
There is no five-star prospect this year, though, on a roster with a third of its players listed less than 6 feet tall. Junior forward Mason Grant appears to be a potential star but he’s far from a finished product. So this season’s Cyclones have embraced a scrappier, grimier approach. There’s a sort of junkyard dog mindset — a label Pearson has long coined within his program — that to seems to naturally fit this group especially well.
It’s that fighter’s mentality that willed Porter-Gaud to a third-place showing with a pair of wins against one loss in the 27th annual Roundball Classic the past week in North Charleston.
The Cyclones blasted White Plains from New York, 64-42, on Friday, took a 53-50 double-overtime loss against Cap Fear from North Carolina in the semifinals on Saturday, only to bounce back with a late rally for a three-point win over Goose Creek in the third-place game on Monday.
“I know we may not look it,” Pearson reiterated in a seeming mix of exhaustion and euphoria on Monday night. “But we’ll always give you a fight. I know the guys we have are going to compete to the end and do everything they possibly can to win.”
Grant is the centerpiece. The 6-foot-4 wing averaged 22 points, eight rebounds and four blocks through the three-game stretch. He scored 18 against Goose Creek on Monday, including a pair of timely baskets within the final four minutes.
He scored through contact and then added the free throw to give Porter-Gaud its first lead of the game with less than four minutes to play. The Cyclones and Gators would trade the lead twice more before Grant split two defenders with a spin through the paint and finished a layup that opened a three-point edge with just over a minute left. Porter-Gaud wouldn’t trail again.
“Mason is going to be superstar,” Pearson said. “He’s been making some man moves lately. He covers a whole lot of ground for us with the different things he can do.”
Grant can’t do it alone though. Porter-Gaud needs a spark plug like Tobias Lafayette buzzing around. Lafayette checked back into the game with Porter-Gaud facing a nine-point deficit and eight minutes to play. He rang up five quick points in less than a minute to trim the gap to a more manageable margin. It was the first time in the second half it seemed like the Cyclones were really threatening.
Matt Kelly flies around on the hardwood the same way the quarterback crashes across the football field. His seemingly reckless attack always appears to throw off the defense a little at first.
Then there are the twins: Chai and Jett Kirshtein — both listed, probably generously, at 5-foot-10. Chai had six points and two steals against Goose Creek. Jett scored five with a block. Jett sank a three-pointer late that put Porter-Gaud in a position to move ahead for the first time off of Grant’s and-one a minute later. When Goose Creek reclaimed the lead, it was Chai who buried a three to even the game with just over two minutes to play. He came up with a steal on the ensuing possession and pushed ahead to Kelly who absorbed a shooting foul as he crashed to the floor.
They scrap, they claw, they fight. They don’t hesitate to shoot. You even find yourself applauding the plays they don’t make. How can you not, when they’re fully extended trying to corral a rebound against a guy half of a foot taller?
“They are the backbone of this team,” Pearson said. “It’s the mentality and the attitude. They might not be the biggest or the fastest. But they might be the meanest ones out there. They never feel like they’re going to lose the game.”
Porter-Gaud is now 10-4 heading into a brief holiday break. Interesting games against Wofford commit Nick Pringle and Whale Branch on Jan. 4 and then Master’s Academy (Fla.) on Jan. 8 await the Cyclones’ return.
Any sort of run through the second half of the season, Pearson assures, will require the same kind of fight they exhibited at Roundball.
“These kids give you so much effort and hustle and physicality,” Pearson explained. “Compete to the very end — that’s the makeup of this team. That’s what you saw here (at the Roundball Classic) and that’s what we’ll need to have going forward.”
The Cyclones' third-place showing was the best of the nine Lowcountry teams at the Roundball Classic.
First Baptist went 1-2 through this year’s tournament, with a 65-33 loss to Goose Creek, followed by a 93-85 win over Stall, before finishing with a 79-46 loss to White Plains (N.Y.).
Wando and Oceanside were both held winless through their three-game slates. Wando fell 61-37 to Cape Fear (N.C.), 68-44 to White Plains, and 54-50 to Stall. Oceanside lost 61-53 to Greater Atlanta Christian (Ga.), 67-46 to West Ashley, and 79-76 to Pinewood.
Bartown (Fla.) won the International Bracket, while Berkmar won the Foundation.