There are losses, and there are defeats that lead a basketball coach to thinking of what his team could be capable. Jason Keeler is looking at Thursday night’s setback as one of the latter.
The Ware County Gators beat the South Effingham Mustangs 56-39 in the first round of the Swamp Shootout at the Ware County gymnasium. Yet there was much to like for Keeler in his team’s loss.
“We stood toe-to-toe with a powerhouse,” he said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys. If we play the way we did (Thursday night), we will have a chance to win every night.”
Early on, the Gators appeared to be ready to swallow the younger Mustangs whole. They led 31-15 at the half and were ahead 45-22. But the Mustangs slashed the lead down to nine points with 5 minutes to play.
“They were hurting us early with the press,” Keeler said of the Gators. “But we clawed and clawed and fought and fought and fought. We really stepped it up in the second half and handled their pressure.”
The Mustangs (4-6) trailed 50-39 with 1:30 to play in the game before the Gators — who have four players who are 6-foot-6 — hit their final six foul shots to ice the contest.
“It’s a credit to them,” Keeler said. “They made their free throws at the end of the game, which is what good teams do. I don’t know that we will play a better team this year.”
Alex Reid led the Mustangs with 11 points, while Eddie Harris added 10 and Zach Anderson had nine. Keeler also liked the way his team attacked Thursday night instead of reacting.
“They kids are really buying into it,” he said. “We were finally aggressive.”
Keeler also was delighted with the play of Steven Williams, promoted from the JV ranks for the tournament. Williams led the Mustangs in rebounding against the Gators.
“I can’t say enough about Steven Williams. He is going to be a very good player. He may not lead the team in scoring or lead the team in assists, but he is going to lead the team in hustle.”
The Mustangs’ performance Thursday night was a departure from the team’s practice Wednesday, according to Keeler. He stopped the first drill of the session because he didn’t like what he saw out of his team.
“I said, ‘There’s not one of you who can tell me they ran as hard as they could in that drill,’” he said.
The holiday tournament is the Mustangs’ longest road trip of the year so far, and six of the first nine games of the season have been at The Corral.
“We decided we wanted to be out of our comfort zone and play a big-time team and we stood toe-to-toe,” Keeler said. “I don’t want them to think I’m happy about the loss. But I want them to know I’m pleased with the effort.”
Another benefit of the tournament — aside from letting the Mustangs see what else lies ahead next year in Region 3-AAAA in addition to rival Effingham County — is having to play three games in three days. The Mustangs have only one off night from the Tuesday, Friday and Saturday game schedule in January.
“We’re in a situation where there isn’t a day off,” Keeler said. “In the second half of the season, you play three games in four days every week. We need to play three straight games to get us prepared for that.”