In December, the moment was big for the Meadowdale boys basketball team. They had just lost by 10 at Dunbar and 32 at Miami East. The Lions, a team that won a Division III district title last season, was 2-4 and playing poorly.
In Division II this year with mostly the same roster, the Lions realized they needed something akin to a tournament run to turn their season around. They set a goal.
Consider the season turned around.
On Tuesday, the Lions defeated Ponitz in overtime for an eighth straight win, the same number of tournament games it usually takes to win state. But the Lions weren’t finished. Friday night was alumni night, and Dunbar, usually the team to beat in the City League, was in the Lions Den in front of a sellout crowd.
Meadowdale started poorly, falling behind 20-3, but fought back to take the lead at the end of the third quarter and hold off Dunbar 60-56, setting off a celebration of Meadowdale players, coaches, cheerleaders and few others jumping around the court and hugging.
“This means a lot,” said Lions senior Lee Benson III, who scored a game-high 24 points. “At the start of the season it was looking a little iffy. We didn’t know if we were going to do it, but we just kept pushing.”
The Lions had to push through at the end to end a five-game losing streak against Dunbar. Benson hadn’t known victory against the Wolverines since a home game late in his freshman season. Then he had a moment he won’t forget that sealed the win.
Freshman guard Jecarious Reaves, who made two important 3-pointers in the second half, went to the free-throw line for a 1-and-1 with a two-point lead with 15 seconds left and looking full of confidence. But he missed. No worries.
Teammate Malik Thomas got the rebound and shot. But it rolled off the rim. Again, no worries. Benson swooped in on the right side and tipped in Thomas’ miss for a four-point lead as the clocked ticked under 10 seconds. In that moment, Benson knew the victory was secure.
“In that moment ... please go in,” Benson said. “When I saw it coming I thought, ‘I got this.’”
Meadowdale (11-4) and Dunbar (12-4) are both 7-1 in league play with two games left and could share the league title, which would be coach Dwayne Chastain Sr.’s first. The sellout, alumni night and needing to win to have a chance at the league title was a lot to face.
“It was a lot of pressure on them, and I knew they wanted to go out there and do it for me,” Chastain said. “So when I called the first timeout, I wasn’t upset. I said, ‘Calm down fellas. Just relax. It’s OK.’ They went out and played a little better.”
The Lions cut Dunbar’s lead to 24-19, but the Wolverines finished the half with a 12-4 run to lead 36-23.
“At halftime I said, ‘Look, we’re not playing good basketball and we’re down 13,’” Chastain said. “I said, ‘If we can go out here and play our basketball, I think things can change.’”
The Lions began hitting shots and Benson dominated the half with 16 points. And on defense they stopped letting the Wolverines get to the rim with better help defense. That defensive effort, sparked by Rob Peebles in a reserve role, began in the second quarter and allowed the Lions to win the third quarter 19-4.
Dunbar had its typical balanced scoring with Antone Allen scoring 14 and B.J. Hatcher and Antaune Allen scoring 12. But the third quarter completely changed the momentum in the Lions’ favor.
“We got comfortable, we really got comfortable,” Dunbar coach Tony Dixon said. “We sped up when we didn’t need to. We didn’t run our offense. We allowed them to get back in it, and they wanted it more. We got punked tonight.”
One of the messages in Chastain’s program-building efforts has been a change in mindset when Dunbar is the opponent.
“It’s about changing the culture, and every time we play against Dunbar we don’t play against their kids, we play against the name,” he said. “In the first half, I believe we played against their name. We were worried about beating Dunbar.”
Then the crowd, the calming words of the coach during timeouts and halftime, changed everything for the Lions on a night that brought back memories to both coaches.
“I felt like I was back in high school with the packed house,” said Dixon, who played at Dunbar in the mid-2000s. “That’s what we want.”
Chastain is a 1989 Colonel White graduate. He said most nights in city league games were sellouts in those days.
“It was beautiful,” Chastain said. “I used to tell them at practice, ‘Y’all will never be able to experience what I experienced back in high school.’ When I went in the locker room today, I told them, ‘Y’all are about to experience that right now.’”
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