BY LINDA JACOBS
A week of rest paid dividends for the Livingston Lions, as the hosts opened the annual Holiday Hoopfest with a 72-65 win over the Hitchcock Bulldogs.
Prior to the Christmas break, the Lions of coach Brian Coffman had played 14 games in a two-week period, which included a loss to College Station in the District 18-5A opener.
Although Livingston trailed Hitchcock at the end of the first three frames, the more conditioned Lions prevailed by outscoring the Bulldogs 25-16 in the fourth quarter to record the win.
"This was a great way to start the tournament, a great way to start back off a break, because right before break, we finished on a down," stated Coffman. "In two weeks, we had played 14 games, and I think our legs were kind of out from under us."
Coffman credited a great defensive effort for the team's victory. "We finally picked it up and played good defense. That's what our kids really do well."
Down 53-47 with 6:54 left in the game, the Lions had the stronger legs to finish off the Bulldogs in the final minutes of the contest. "We condition a lot, so by the time that fourth quarter comes around, we're not really tired. We were kind of getting there before the break. Our legs were kind of dead, but we're fresh now. As teams get to the end and they're starting to die, we're still running."
A quick 7-1 run erased Livingston's six point deficit and tied the score at 54 with 5:18 left in the game. A dish from Jay Cooper to Rafael Rios for a short jumper in the paint started the rally. Cameron Merchant, the game's leading scorer with 22 points, drained a baseline trey with 5:39 on the clock. Jordan Rains tied the game when he picked off a steal and scored a layup. Rains later tossed an assist to Merchant, who put the Lions up for good, 56-54 with 4:32 remaining.
Rios added another jumpshot with 3:50 left to extend the lead to 58-54. A steal by Merchant was converted into a layup by Cooper to give the Lions a 60-54 lead. Hitchcock trimmed it 60-56 on an inside hoop at the 3:16 mark. That would be the closest they'd get to the Lions, as a 6-1 run by Livingston stretched the lead to 66-57 with 2:12 left in the game. Rains scored twice and Cooper connected two free throws during the run.
Jermichael Harrell, who finished runner-up with 14 points, scored on a putback with 1:32 left and added a layup with 21 seconds remaining to expand the lead to 70-63. Grant Yannazzo scored the team's final hoop on a layup with 12 seconds left for a 72-63 margin. Hitchcock deposited a goal with three seconds left for the final score, 72-65.
Hitchcock had outscored the Lions 15-14 in the opening frame. Harrell deposited eight of his 14 points in the opening frame to keep pace with the Bulldogs. A 17-15 advantage by Hitchcock in the second gave the Bulldogs a 32-29 lead at halftime. Merchant had his best quarter, scoring four field goals and a pair of free throws in the second.
Livingston outscored the Bulldogs 18-17 in the third, as six Lions contributed in the frame. Merchant led with seven points, followed by Rios with three. Tim Johnson, who finished the game with eight points, scored a hoop, as did Harrell and J.D. Green. Rains added two free throws.
Diboll chops tourney host in second round
The Livingston Lions fell behind early and could not overcome an athletic Diboll Lumberjack squad in an 80-70 competition played at Livingston Junior High.
After a 6-6 tie to begin the game, Diboll put up a lead that they would hold until the final buzzer. Livingston coach Brian Coffman was not impressed with the effort given and called his first time out.
Hustle and play picked up for the Lions on defense, including a few thefts by the Lion defense. An 18-15 Lumberjack first quarter was the result.
"They try to put the brakes on sometimes because they want slow it down, but I want to run," Coffman said of his team. "We need to run, because our legs and conditioning is better than most. We need to run (the opposition) so we can own them later on in the game. When they press, we try to dribble out of it, but we're young and we will get better and better every day. We need to outrun them and get the ball inside."
Three pointers and free throws allowed the 'Jacks to widen the margin by 10 just two minutes into the second quarter.
"The good thing about this tournament is that there are 10 good teams in here. There is some talent here that gives us a challenge, which is good because our district is going to challenge us every game."
Offensive rebounding would help the Lions to keep pace the rest of the period, as second chances and put backs closed the gap to 39-32 at the half.
J.D. Cooper began the second half with a three-pointer, a sign of things to come in the next two minutes. Livingston had nearly caught Diboll with a 44-40 in a span of just two minutes.
"We played good in the first half and the third quarter," Coffman said. "We weren't aggressive on defense, because we were going to put them on the free throw line. There are times when we don't communicate and we don't get back (on defense). It is some of the things that keeps haunting us, but we're getting better at it and we're playing better. After 17 games together, or starting to learn what each other's habits are. Some of our shooting still has to come around and some of these day games during the Christmas holidays the kids heads aren't all the way into it."
Lumberjack Tyrone Sias and Livingston's Jordan Rains traded three pointers from the wing to keep the scoreboard rolling.
But a 4-0 Diboll run that showed momentum had Coffman calling for timeout. The Lumberjacks would again pull away for a 10-point advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
In the fourth, a three-on-one Lion fast break ended in an off-balance shot that clunked into the bottom of the backboard. Diboll took the loose ball and delivered a half court pass that resulted in an easy bucket. The four-point turnaround and an alley-oop gave the Lumberjacks all the momentum needed to close out the contest.
JerMichael Harrell led the Lions with 19 points, while Cameron Merchant added 13.