CHARLOTTESVILLE — There was an absent intangible last season. It was evident from Day 1, Eastern Hancock boys basketball coach Aaron Spaulding recalled, and the Royals spent the past calendar year trying to rediscover it.
In their home opener on Wednesday night, the host Class 2A Royals (1-0) revealed their findings, and it led to an impressive 57-48 victory against traditional season-opener rival Centerville.
“We’ve got kids that maybe their skill sets don’t naturally blend as much as you want, so they had to work at it. We spent all year working on it, and I thought they grew from it to develop a chemistry,” Spaulding said. “Tonight, more than anything, we kept playing together and did a nice job on both ends of the floor, finding a way to win.”
Senior guard Brycen Napier led the Royals with 19 points. Senior guard A.J. Muegge poured in 13 points, and senior guard Addison True had 12 points and a team-high 14 rebounds for a double-double to flip the script on the visiting Bulldogs.
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Last year, the Royals led the Class 2A Bulldogs early before letting their advantage slip away, 69-56, in the season opener. Not this time.
“They got us last year, so we had to get them this year,” True said. “They are always pretty good.”
Led by senior guard Justin DuPree, who finished with a team-high 15 points and 14 rebounds, the Bulldogs (0-1) kept the game close, tying the Royals four times. Overall, there were seven lead changes heading into the fourth quarter.
Centerville junior Dante Torres chipped in 10 points. The guard had seven of the Bulldogs’ 18 points in the third quarter and buried two of the team’s six 3-pointers in the game.
In the final eight minutes, however, the Royals made their move, stringing together a 15-5 run to turn a 40-39 deficit into a 54-45 lead.
Eastern Hancock posted 18 points in the fourth, converting 10 of 11 free throws down the stretch, while the defense limited Centerville to 2 of 12 shooting.
“We decided defensively to strap it down a bit, and then we got the rebounds we needed to get,” True said. “That’s part of that senior leadership.”
The Royals have plenty of upperclassmen experience on the roster with eight seniors, including five in the starting lineup, and three juniors to provide depth.
Six different players scored at least three points for the Royals, who shot 16 of 22 from the foul line and had a combined 12 assists.
“That’s what we have this year, and that’s what we need to rely on. When someone else isn’t on, someone else can step up,” True said. “It’s a good thing.”
The team’s unselfishness is a potential difference maker this season, Spaulding said. Napier, a starter last season, came off the bench and shot 5 of 7 from the floor. He was 8-for-9 in free-throw attempts. Five fell through the net in the tide-turning fourth.
“That’s something we’re really looking at this year, is trying to utilize our bench,” Spaulding said. “We think we have a lot of guys that can contribute, so we want to make sure we’re getting lots of guys minutes.”
Each practice is an open tryout for a starting job before game nights, Spaulding emphasized. The program’s philosophy for 2017-18 is two-fold: work for your spot and contribute to the team’s chemistry.
“Last year, we led 12 at the half at their place, and then more than anything, lack of good chemistry in the second half got us beat,” Spaulding said. “They ended up beating us by double figures. So from that night on, we worked on it. It was the opposite this year. I thought our chemistry was good and allowed us to get a win.”
At 12-11 last season, the Royals exited the state tournament in the first round in sectional, falling to Irvington Prep Academy 58-57. This year, the seniors are aiming for something the program hasn’t achieved since 2008.
“I think the goal for us is a sectional championship, obviously, and then win conference. We’re trying to break the single-season wins record with 22 games, too,” True said. “That’s what we’re striving for, so we have to get better every single day.”