LAURINBURG — The Scotland boys basketball program brought home its first Southeastern Conference regular season championship in more than a decade a year ago under former coach Michael Malpass.
Now under the direction of first-year head coach Matt Justin, the Scots begin the pursuit of back-to-back conference titles when they visit Purnell Swett tonight to battle the Rams (3-6) in the SEC opener for both squads.
The Scots (5-7) have won three of their last four games to rebound from a 2-6 start to the season. Scotland dispatched Jack Britt 56-46 in Laurinburg Tuesday in a game where it led by as many as 22 points in the second half.
The week before, Scotland won a pair of contests, including a 94-85 up-and-down affair against rival Richmond Senior in the third-place game of the Holiday in the Pines tournament hosted at Pinecrest High School.
Scotland can attribute much of the turnaround to improved ball movement and more efficient outside shooting. The Scots only scored 60 or more points once in their first eight games but have done so twice in their last four. Justin said execution on offense is far from perfect, though, and hopes it is something his team continues to refine as the SEC season progresses.
“Offensively, we still are a little stagnant sometimes,” Justin said. “We hold the ball at times and I think we need to move it a little quicker and get into our offense quicker. Sometimes the ball sticks too much … .
“If we can get guys to move the basketball and play together, I think we’ll be a lot better.”
Sophomore guard Niem Ratliffe is doing his part to elevate the offense — he is averaging 32 points on 67 percent shooting over his last two outings. Ratliffe scored a career-high 39 points and sank 4-of-8 3-pointers in Scotland’s win over Richmond, then followed with 25 points while shooting 6-for-8 from behind the arc in the victory against Jack Britt.
The 5-foot-10 guard leads the team in scoring (15.2 points), assists (3.3) and steals (2.8) for the season. Sophomore Justin McRae is the only other Scot to average double-digit scoring (11.1 points). The 6-foot-2 guard is the top 3-point marksman on the team, shooting 42 percent from long range.
The Scots’ roster features quality depth and Justin likes to keep his players fresh by rotating starters and reserves in and out of the rotation. Scotland has deployed a full-court pressure defensive look more often in recent weeks and it has resulted in more transition opportunities.
“Defensively, I think we’ve found our identity,” Justin said. “We’re going to pressure and try to get on you and change our defenses a little bit.”
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13