SOUTHERN PINES — The Scotland boys basketball team could face some familiar foes when it returns to the hardwood Monday for a three-day tournament.
The Scots are one of eight programs that will participate in next week’s Holiday in the Pines hoops tourney at Pinecrest High School. Among the teams in the field are the host Patriots and fellow Southeastern Conference rival Richmond Senior.
Scotland will take the floor for its first-round matchup against Fayetteville’s New Life Christian Academy at 6 p.m. Tourney action will begin at 2 p.m. with the Mount Zion-Olympic tilt, then Richmond is slated to battle Orange at 4. The nightcap at 8 p.m. features West Montgomery and Pinecrest.
While Scotland is slotted on the opposite side of the bracket from Richmond and wouldn’t play its arch-rival until Wednesday at the earliest, the Scots could play Pinecrest Tuesday depending on the outcomes of Monday’s games. The Patriots are the defending Holiday in the Pines champions — they bested Richmond 60-57 in the title contest a year ago.
On paper, the Scots appear to be a longshot contender for this season’s tourney crown. First-year head coach Matt Justin and his young squad are 2-6 heading into Monday. In its most recent action, Scotland played back-to-back road games on Dec. 16 and Dec. 17 and split the pair. The Scots overcame a first-half deficit to defeat Jack Britt 43-40 in overtime, then lost a third-quarter lead in their 50-38 loss to Marlboro County the following night.
Justin continues to experiment with the lineup in an attempt to find a unit that clicks with one another, and the Scots have also been without senior Randy Leak, one of their top returning players from last year’s SEC championship-winning club.
Leak, who averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds a season ago, is battling an ankle injury he suffered at the tail-end of Scotland’s football season. He’s appeared in four games this year and seemed hampered by the ailment and only averaged 4.5 points. Justin and his staff have shut down Leak until after the holiday break with the hopes that he will return to form once the SEC schedule revs up in January.
In the meantime, Scotland will rely on a bevvy of sophomores with some upperclassmen sprinkled in to keep its hopes of a winning campaign afloat. Sophomore guard Niem Ratliffe leads the Scots in points and assists, averaging 12.6 points and 3 assists per contest. Sophomore guard Justin McRae has been one of Scotland’s most consistent players, averaging 11.7 points and 1.7 steals, while shooting 51 percent from the field and 48 percent from beyond the arc.
Senior Willie Douglas has struggled with his stroke from the outside but has shown he is capable of stepping up in clutch moments. The 6-foot-5 forward hit the go-ahead shot in the Scots’ win over Jack Britt and has posted season averages of 9.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2 steals per game.
Scotland’s first-round opponent, New Life Christian, is coached by Aaron Parker The Monarchs are 15-5, but were drubbed the last time they faced an SEC foe — Pinecrest cruised to a 67-51 victory in Southern Pines Dec. 14.
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.