INDIAN TRAIL – First-year coach Garrett Malone left his Forest Hills assistant post to become Porter Ridge’s head man before this season began. In doing so, he left behind a Yellow Jacket team that was fresh off a state championship and a winning culture built in large part by the success of Forest Hills coach Matt Sides.
Coming from that, Malone figured it was going to take some time to build the Porter Ridge program that hadn’t had a winning season since the 2007-08 campaign when current Cuthbertson coach Mike Helms guided the Pirates to a 15-12 record.
In the more than decade since, the Porter Ridge program struggled going 59-171 (.256 win percentage) but Malone has already helped turn that around.
Last year, they went a respectable 10-14 under Greg Wenger, but this season, Malone and the Pirates entered a key conference matchup on Jan. 4 with an 8-1 record. They were looking to knock off defending state champion Independence, a team that had beaten Porter Ridge eight straight times and in 14 of the previous 15 contests.
And Independence coach Preston Davis, paying a high compliment to a program his team had owned in the recent past, knew it was going to be a battle with Malone’s team this time around.
“I watched film on them and they’re playing a lot better than last year,” Davis said. “I knew they were going to be competitive. I knew they were going to compete and that they weren’t going to be backing down. Coach Malone comes from a championship program at Forest Hills where he was an assistant coach, so I knew he was going to bring it and he’s done it. Those guys believe and that’s dangerous.”
To Davis’ point, the Pirates hung close with Independence for much of the first half before taking a 27-26 lead midway through the second quarter that opened up to a 42-37 halftime lead.
The biggest catalyst was Cameron Stitt, the Pirate 6-foot-8 senior wing who can score at all three levels. He has offers from Hampton and UNC Greensboro, but is a next-level talent who can, and did, take over games.
In the first half, Stitt finished with 19 of his game-high 33 points. Stitt, who leads the team with 20.8 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game, also made all 13 of his free throw attempts and added six rebounds.
“He’s a heck of a player and a good leader,” Malone said. “He’s done a great job of leading the young guys. Sometimes you get a very good player like that and you come in with new thoughts and new philosophies and they tune you out and are just trying to get their scholarship or whatever it may be. But he’s done a good job of buying in and helping us become the team that we are now.”
The Pirates were down senior guard Grayson McCall, who averages 8.5 points per game, but was playing in Tampa at the Blue-Grey All-American football game the following day. They started freshman Isaiah Williams and sophomore point guard Marcus Willis.
Willis (12.3 points, 3.6 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game) and Williams (8.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game) are the Pirates second and third leading scorers on the season, but that inexperience may have cost Porter Ridge in the second half as Independence went to a faster tempo and added more defensive pressure.
Willis finished with 15 points, six rebounds and four assists to go with just one turnover, but he struggled to get the Pirates in their offense at times in the second half. Williams only scored five points and grabbed two rebounds to go with four turnovers.
Stitt only had four third quarter points and watched as Independence turned a five-point halftime deficit into a 55-48 lead after a 14-0 spurt closed out the third quarter.
“We have to have them grow up, learn the game and learn when and when not to do certain things,” Malone said. “(Independence) are the guys we are chasing and we have to get to their level when it comes to crunch time and composure. When they got tough, I thought we shrunk a little bit but that’s because we’re young and we haven’t been in those types of games. We have to get to that level where we’re composed. When the road gets tough we have to get tougher.”
The Pirates did that, outscoring the Patriots 15-10 to cut the lead to 65-63, but they couldn’t get any closer before falling 73-65.
The loss drops the Pirates to 1-2 in league play, but is not all bad to Malone and his upstart Pirate team that is proving to be a tough out.
“We can get better,” Malone said. “We have to stop depending on (Stitt) and some of our young guys have to step up and make some plays. And he has to trust them more, but they have to give them that trust.
“I told the guys that I’m encouraged. I wanted to win this game and I thought that we had them. They are a great team, so I wanted to beat them. We had them, but we also can’t keep saying, ‘Oh, we had them.’ At one point we have to get them.”