LAURINBURG — Most preseason prognosticators didn’t give the Scotland boys basketball team much of a shot at repeating as Southeastern Conference regular season champions.
After losing three of their top four scorers from last season and returning only a handful of players who entered this year with varsity experience, the Scots weren’t expected to contend with the likes of Pinecrest, Richmond Senior or Hoke for the conference crown.
Not to mention Scotland was breaking in a first-year head coach from Indiana after former skipper Michael Malpass departed during the offseason.
But three games into the SEC schedule, Scotland is precisely where they were at the conclusion of last season — at the top of the conference standings.
The Scots took sole control of first place in the SEC Tuesday after defeating Hoke 67-56 at home. Both teams entered the matchup with identical 2-0 marks, but with the Scots’ win, Matt Justin’s squad left Scotland gym as the only SEC team remaining with an unblemished conference record.
“The kids have improved leaps and bounds since the start of the year and I think they keep getting better,” Justin said. “I’m excited about the direction that we’re going in. It’s three really big wins to start the conference and I know it’s the start of the conference season, but we’re definitely in the driver’s seat right now sitting at 3-0.”
After trailing 31-30 at halftime, Scotland outscored Hoke 21-11 in the 3rd quarter to take a nine-point lead into the fourth quarter. In the final period, the Scots were able to hold the Bucks at arm’s length with timely baskets, and the visitors never threatened to mount a comeback.
“In the second half, we definitely picked it up with our energy,” Justin said. “(In the first half) we didn’t really get back on defense and they scored in transition. A lot of their baskets were our mental mistakes.”
Hoke (12-4, 2-1 in the SEC) was able to grab the lead before halftime after trailing in the first quarter. The Scots jumped out to a 17-10 advantage in the opening period thanks to a pair of 3-pointers from senior Willie Douglas and another trey from sophomore Justin McRae, but the Bucks fought their way back into the game with its post play.
Daishawn George scored seven points in the second quarter for Hoke, most of which came after offensive rebounds, and frontcourt mates Rovel Ray and Silas Love added four points apiece in the paint.
But Scotland (8-7, 3-0 in the SEC) made its game-changing run after halftime, as senior Randy Leak and sophomore Niem Ratliffe spearheaded an 11-3 run to open the third quarter.
The Scots extended their lead to nine points by the end of the period, and they put the game out of reach in the fourth as Douglas, Leak and Ratliffe combined to drill four shots from behind the arc to keep the Bucks at bay.
“When we can make shots from the outside, we’ll be pretty competitive,” Justin said. “It was a good collective effort offensively, which is good to see.”
Leak paced Scotland with a season-high 18 points as four Scots cracked double-digit scoring. Douglas and Ratliffe chipped in 14 points apiece, and junior Donta Green chipped in 10.
Love scored 17 points for Hoke, and Ray added 11.
Scotland will return to the court Friday when it travels to Lumberton to play the Pirates.
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.