Just when Rich East coach George Leonard thought things couldn't get any worse, they did. The Rockets lost a five-point decision to Marian Catholic at Rich South's annual McDipper Holiday Tournament to fall to 6-4 and point guard Washawn Watson was lost with a broken wrist.
"It was gut check time, especially for our seniors," Leonard said. "They responded well. It took a little bit of time for them to figure out how good they are. They changed focus. I wish I knew exactly how it happened. More than anything, the seniors decided they didn't want to go out that way. Kids stepped up in leadership positions and focused on the process."
Focus on the process.
That is a catch phrase that Leonard and his assistants preach every day. "So much about high school basketball is leadership and attitude. The right kids bought in and they got the other kids involved. Team basketball is our style. It is hard to talk about them individually when it is a collective effort. When things are going like this, it's fun," Leonard said.
"That's what coach always says: focus on the process. We hear it from him about six or seven times a day and from the assistant coaches about three or four times a day," said 5-foot-10 senior guard Russell Wright. "What does it mean? If you make a bad play, focus on the next play, don't think about the bad play. Think about free throws and defense. Be smart, be on the same page with your other teammates."
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Rich East (19-6) has won seven in a row and 13 of its last 15. The Rockets ousted Rich South 69-53 last Friday to win the Class 3A regional at Peotone. It was their first regional title since 2009 and only the Park Forest school's second since 1965. They realized their only sectional title and Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1955.
Against Rich South, the Rockets demonstrated the collective effort that has defined their late-season resurgence. Russell Wright and Brandon Cole each scored 13 points, Nick Horne had 11 and Ron Lawton contributed eight points and 13 rebounds.
That wasn't the way it was early in the season. For example, Wright was averaging only two assists and one steal before Watson was injured. "I lacked confidence in myself. I didn't see myself being that good," he said.
"We weren't playing as a team," said Horne, a 6-foot-2 senior. "After we lost to Marian Catholic, we had a team meeting. 'This is not us,' we said to ourselves. We were 25-2 as sophomores. We looked forward to playing together on the varsity. Everyone had high expectations. But we were losing to teams that we weren't supposed to lose to."
After the team meeting, order was restored.
"When Watson broke his wrist, the coach put me at point guard. I was trying to be the captain. We had a great practice. The coach was surprised. He said: 'This is how you are supposed to play, running and scoring.' After our loss to Marian Catholic, everyone wanted to do their best for each other. It was all about brotherhood," Horne said.
Nobody stepped up more than Wright. In the last 15 games, he has averaged six points, seven assists and six steals per game. "He turned it around and so did the others," Leonard said.
His teammates have stepped up, too. Horne averages 10 points per game, 6-foot-5 junior Don Henderson averages 12 points and 10 rebounds, 6-foot-6 senior Ron Lawton averages 16 points and eight rebounds and 6-foot-1 senior Brandon Cole is averaging 13 points and is described as "the best sixth man in the state" by Leonard.
Cole is the son of former Bloom star Brandon Cole. Watson, a 6-foot-3 senior, has returned to the starting lineup and also provides a spark. Another valuable contributor is 6-foot sophomore Nick Harden.
"We decided to work hard, to focus on the process, doing what we were supposed to do," Wright said. "The problem was lack of confidence and not realizing how good we were. We were good but we didn't notice how good. Losing to teams we weren't supposed to lose to made us wake up."
Even though Rich East hasn't been to the state finals since the old Sweet Sixteen gathered in Huff Gym in 1955, Wright said the team's primary goal always has been to go to the state finals in Peoria. He doesn't think that was a stretch.
"We have been playing together since we were freshmen," said Wright, noting that he and Horne, Henderson and Lawton went to grade school together. "I have seen us grow as better basketball players. We put in the work and we knew what we are capable of.
"After Watson got hurt, I knew I had to step up big and do more for my team. I had to give more effort, more energy. I had to be more aggressive, play smart, play solid defense and keep turnovers low so I didn't hurt the team. If I am doing everything right, my teammates pick up and we go as one. We're all on the same page, thinking of going to Peoria.
"The game is a lot more fun now. When we lost games we weren't supposed to lose, it was real disappointing. I had bad games. I wasn't doing what I was supposed to do to help my team win games. Now we're doing what we thought we could do. Everybody is contributing. There is no selfishness."