By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
SALADO – Being young can have its drawbacks, but one game into the 2009-10 basketball season, Salado coach Kenny Mann isn't seeing any.
Despite having just one returning varsity player – 6-foot-5 junior Braxton Tucker – the fledgling Eagles proved youth can have its advantages, too, in a 64-59 victory over Rockdale in the season-opener for both teams Tuesday evening.
"I saw a lot of hustle, I saw a lot of no-quit," Mann said. "There were times when Rockdale was starting to gain an edge on us, ... especially towards the end when Rockdale would make a big play – and just like that we'd come back down and answer – they wouldn't get shaken."
With a team-high 16 points from sophomore guard Koby Spears – who added nine in a fourth quarter spurt – and 11 and 10 points from juniors Tucker and Paul Warren, Salado (1-0) was able to counteract the two 20-point efforts by Rockdale's Will McQuitter, who led all scorers with 26, and sharp-shooting Lance Loewe, who added 23, including five 3-pointers.
"They really have that mind-set that we're not supposed to lose," Mann said. "So even at this level, once they got over that (initial) shakiness, I could tell they were like, 'These guys aren't going to beat us.'"
And it was that youthful swagger that helped the Eagles maintain a lead throughout the contest, taking a slight lead midway through the first quarter and holding onto it despite getting outscored 10-4 over the final four minutes of the second quarter with Salado leading 24-21 at halftime.
Coming out of the break, both teams turned up the pace of the game, racing recklessly up and down the court as Rockdale took a 31-30 lead following the third of Loewe's five 3-pointers.
Both teams traded buckets over the next four minutes until the Tigers retook the lead on a three-point play by McQuitter with 34 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
From there, the Eagles answered as Caleb Little – the team's lone senior – hit both free-throw attempts and then Tucker stole the ensuing inbounds pass for the easy layup as Salado entered the final frame leading 45-43.
Carrying on the momentum, Salado stretched its lead to 51-45 with 4:04 remaining following a three-point play by Spears after getting fouled on a fade-away jumper.
It was Spears' all-out play in the final period that put the Eagles over the top, scoring nine of his 16 in the fourth.
"He's good, he's really good," Mann said of Spears. "I'm looking forward to the next three years with that guy because he's a natural player, but then on top of that, he works hard to make himself even better."
Whatever Rockdale did, Salado answered, as the Eagles closed out the final two minutes on a 10-6 run, thanks to a balanced showing by several role players.
"We don't have any real superstars, and none of them really act like they want to be a superstar," Mann said. "They all have that mind-set – they play together and they all want to win more than they want to be superstars, and that's going to make us better in the end."
Contact Alex Byington at email@example.com or at (254) 501-7566.