Momentum in a year of transition is vital to first-year success and Mountain Pointe seems to have found some at the McClintock Holiday Tournament.
The Pride went 3-1 to finish in fifth place as Hosea Graham’s ideals seem to be sinking in with the Pride.
“We are getting there, but if I can squeeze a little more out of them we will be right there,” Graham said. “I told them there are probably two teams, on our best night, they have to be off for us to beat them, but we can beat the rest of them and that’s my expectations.”
The Pride (7-4 overall, 4-3 in power rankings) enter this week’s games (Wednesday’s game at Desert Ridge, Red Mountain at home Friday) feeling pretty good about the direction the season is headed and should only be stronger with the addition of 6-foot-7, 208-pound Chris Davis after settling some academic issues.
“I feel really good,” Graham said after the finish at McClintock. “We have four more practices to get some things done and we will.”
One of the keys has been the play of two players — senior forward Emmanuel Butler and junior guard Cortez “Tez” Johnson — who just as easily could have been off the roster completely.
During the football season Butler, a Northern Arizona recruit, was unsure whether or not he was going to play (his dad was saying no, his mom yes), while Johnson and his family moved to Arizona from Louisiana soon after tryouts.
Butler has been fantastic as the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder has had seven double-doubles and averages 14.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.
“I wasn’t expecting to play like this,” Butler said. “I’m just trying to do whatever I can for the team. I’m having fun and playing with a lot of confidence.”
Graham never had any doubts that his top player would find his way back to the hard court.
“His mom promised me and moms always have the last word,” Graham said with a smiled. “I just kind of stayed away and didn’t push it. Emmanuel loves basketball. I wasn’t worried about it. As soon as the (football season) was over, he was in the gym.”
Johnson, who played junior varsity at Peabody Magnet in Alexandria as a sophomore, was more of an unknown, but he has started to assert himself more now that he is more comfortable with his surroundings.
Overall he is averaging 5.4 points and 3.2 rebounds, but over the last three games the 6-foot-2, 170-pound guard is averaging 7.7 points and 4.0 rebounds as minutes have increased.
“Cortez is coming along really well,” he said. “He is kind of a wild guy, but he is really learning to be part of the system.”
He moved to Arizona to stay with his father in order to “see what kind of opportunity was out here.”
Johnson said the transition to a new school was easy, but he wasn’t real concerned about it, either.
“When I first got here I didn’t think about making friends, just playing basketball,” he said. “I just want everybody on the court to come together. I like to do all the dirty work and get the ‘W.’ That’s all that matters.”
Butler said Johnson does a good job of keeping the team loose along with making shots, like the game-winner he hit against Marcos de Niza on Monday.
“He’s athletic and he gets us hyped,” Butler said. “Playing hard and he is all over the place. He gets us fired up.”
His development along with that of Khalil Salahuddin, Danny Sullivan, Dominic Reyes, Isaiah Ledford and others has the Pride ready to take on the rest of the teams on the schedule.
“Now in the clutch time we are running the plays,” Johnson said, “and we are coming together.”
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