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Strong finishes season with flourish

by Jason Avery | February 18, 2021 at 6:00 a.m.

High school teams more often than not play conference games on Tuesday and Friday.

But with games being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and inclement weather, many schools have had to play schedules that resemble those of professional leagues.

In Strong’s case, they played one game between beating Hermitage on Dec. 3 and resuming conference play on Jan. 12 against the Hermits.

What followed was a nine-game sprint that ended last Thursday with the Bulldogs falling at Dermott 68-63.

And while that type of schedule may be a hindrance to some teams, the Bulldogs played well, going 6-3 to nail down the league’s No. 3 seed for next week’s regional tournament.

“I felt like I was an NBA coach,” Strong coach Champ Watson said, laughing about Strong’s schedule.

During that span, the Bulldogs completed a season sweep of Hermitage, swept Taylor and Emerson and knocked off Dermott at home.

In addition to losing at Dermott, Strong’s other losses were to 1A state title contenders Bradley and Nevada.

Strong propelled their run with wins in six of their first seven games after returning.

“It’s been great. I’ve been pleased,” Watson said. “Still as a coach, you expect more, but from where they were to where we have developed into, I’m very proud of my guys. It’s one of those deals where we had won six out of seven, so that gave them confidence as well. I’m very pleased for my guys. They’ve worked hard, especially during this type of season with COVID and COVID makeup games and as of the last couple of days, the bad weather. I’m very pleased.”

The Bulldogs and Rams split perfectly, each posting five-point wins over each other while sweeping Taylor, Emerson and Hermitage while losing twice to Nevada and Bradley.

However, Strong won at Emerson by five points and Dermott’s victory was by three, giving the Bulldogs the higher seed by a two-point margin.

For Watson, this wasn’t the first time this has happened.

“I’ve had to go through that once when I was an assistant coach at that time,” Watson said. “It was one of the years I was at (Little Rock) Parkview. We had to go through that with Little Rock Hall. It is what it is.”

Emauri Newton and Byron Maze have helped lead the Bulldogs during this stretch, posting double-doubles three times in a four-game stretch.

Fred Williams had a double-double against Dermott last week, and Watson credited his team for their teamwork.

“I feel as though the kids have bought in,” Watson said, adding that Treveon Daniels has also played a huge role in Strong’s success. That’s the main thing. The kids have bought in and they’re real close with each other, so they spend a lot of time on and off the floor together. I’ll sum it up as teamwork.

“There are no selfish players on the team. Somebody is going to score, get rebounds, sometimes they’re going to get both with the double-doubles. It’s just been great.”

Newton, who had a triple-double in Strong’s home win over Hermitage in December, can make an impact on the game without having to lead the team offensively.

“Emauri is a senior. He’s the point guard. He’s the leader of the team. He makes things go. He’s a game-changer,” Watson said. “If he doesn’t score, he can still make an impact. He’s taken a load of Williams and Daniels. They’re still getting their rebounds, so it’s an added plus. It’s worked really well.”

As the Bulldogs prepare for the regional tournament, Watson said they will continue to work the same way they have throughout the season.

“We’ll continue to do what we do every day,” Watson said. “It’s just work on every aspect of the game. Free throws have really helped us down the stretch. We have put a lot of emphasis on free throws. Defense has been pretty good for us. I’ve been pretty pleased.”

A big reason why the Bulldogs landed the No. 3 seed is they posted lopsided wins in five of their seven league wins while finding a way to win at Emerson and knock off Dermott at home.

Now Watson is hoping the Bulldogs can carry their momentum into the regional tournament.

“We’ve just got to take of our own and let everything play out for itself,” Watson said. “We’ve come together. I was real pleased even after Bradley because we are not the same team as we were when Bradley beat us in our very first game coming out of football.

“We’ve just got to learn how to close and we’ll be all right. Just to even compete, it’s been a blessing to watch.”

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