Pusch Ridge boys basketball coach Dennis O’Reilly believes the annual Northwest Desert Classic, to be held Dec. 27-30 at both Pusch Ridge and Mountain View high schools, should be a great indicator of where the Lions basketball program stands.

Pusch Ridge currently sits at 8-1. If a 66-48 win at Empire last Friday is any indication, all systems are go.

Senior shooting guard Jeremy Courtney led all scorers with 20 points. He was 9-10 at the foul line, and drained three three-pointers.

“We played really well as a team,” Courtney said. “We’re coming together more as a team.”

Last year’s Lions squad went 21-8, and won its first playoff game over Camp Verde.

In their second year under O’Reilly, the Lions are much further along. In 2009, O’Reilly had to wait for the football playoffs to end in order to indoctrinate football players. This year, the gridders were eliminated earlier. The veteran squad, with seven seniors, has been able to get its program, system and cohesiveness into place.

“You can see it,” Courtney said. “It’s an experienced team.”

Senior point guard Daniel McLeod is a major key for the Lions. He scored nine points at Empire. More important was his decision-making, enabling the Lions to shoot 43 percent from the floor, and score 66 points.

“McLeod is a good leader,” O’Reilly said. “He understands the game well. He has a high basketball IQ. He’s a great decision-maker.”

“Daniel McLeod’s a great point guard,” teammate Courtney said.

At one point in the first half, McLeod shot an air ball on a free-throw attempt, then smiled. It was if he were acknowledging the moment was an aberration, a mere blip on the radar. He wasn’t going to sweat it.

The Lions opened the game with an 8-2 run, six by Courtney, who finished with nine in the first quarter, as the Lions built an 11-7 lead.

Two quick baskets by post Colin Chafin led to a 7-0 run by Pusch Ridge for an 18-7 lead.

Then, the Ravens embarked on an 8-0 run. But a basket by McLeod, and later a trey by Courtney with about a minute left, gave the Lions a 29-22 lead at half.

While the guards provided offense, O’Reilly pointed out, they play good on-the-ball defense, and are quick on their feet. Not to be forgotten, big men John Jackson and Chafin scored 10 and 8 points, respectively. Forward Caleb Spegman had another 10, including the final six points for Pusch Ridge in the third, for a commanding 44-29 lead. Jake Gifford also had seven points from his forward position.

“We were getting the ball inside,” O’Reilly said. “John Jackson’s strong inside and takes up a lot of space.

“Our big men give us long arms and length. They get in the passing lanes.”

O’Reilly is hoping his team can make the playoffs again.

“They want to learn. They’re picking up on the system. I’m looking forward to the challenging games

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