Brandon Lavern -- the unlikely hero of the Tuscarora High School boys basketball team's victory Thursday -- left the gym pleased not only with his biggest contribution to the varsity team, but his answers afterward too.
“First interview -- right down a check,” Lavern said marking an imaginary check in the air with his right hand.
First Tuscarora Shootout -- check-plus for Tuscarora.
Tuscarora's 78-76 overtime victory against New Life Christian in the championship game capped a 7-0 record in the inaugural two-day event. Both in hosting and playing, Tuscarora impressed, but the latter element nearly ended on a sour note.
With his team trailing by as many as 16 in the second half, acting Tuscarora coach Robert Ingram scanned his bench for a sub. As he spotted Lavern, a rising junior who played junior varsity last season, Ingram recalled the aftermath of Tuscarora's summer-league loss to Magruder earlier in the week.
Most of the Tuscarora players had their head down and looked dejected. Not Lavern, who was making eye contact, nodding and listening intently. Ingram decided his team needed that type of personality Thursday.
Lavern definitely knew what Ingram wanted.
“Create a spark, light up the team,” Lavern said. “Just do my job.”
That started with slowing Mo Sallah, the imposing Broadfording Christian center who was playing with New Life this week and had dominated the first half of Thursday's final. Lavern, though undersized, played Sallah physically and frustrated him.
“Brandon, he's that guy that everyone needs,” Ingram said. “He doesn't look like he has the classic basketball body, but he can rebound. He'll hustle, and he'll get you the things that you need.”
Then Lavern started scoring efficiently inside time and time again, leading a lineup of Tuscarora reserves in the comeback. Eventually, Lamell Washington and Kwa McDonald returned to the lineup to help seal the win, but they played within the framework created by the subs.
“It makes you feel good when you know the guys you see that just pay the price every day in practice, may not get the minutes, and all of a sudden, they go in there and they inspire you to a win,” said Tuscarora coach Pat Cook, who watched parts of his team's games this week while scrambling between two gyms to ensure the event ran smoothly. “That's always the most satisfying thing.”
Cook certainly had other options for what satisfied him most. He could've chosen all the coaches who thanked him for creating and running the 12-team tournament. Or he could've chosen one of Lavern's baskets.
At one point during his run that lasted from early in the second half to the final buzzer, Lavern received the ball in post, dropped stepped to the middle and took a left-handed hook shot around Sallah. Cook has often worked with Lavern, who comes from a football background, on using his left hand rather than his favored right.
When Sallah's shot fell through the hoop, Cook's face went blank in shock for a moment.
“Alright,” Cook said slowly as a grin spread his face for a gratifying moment near the end of a long two days of running the event. “Alright.”