Sabres preparing to gel, excel after slow start

As many area fans look through the early-season basketball records this season, chances are they’re surprised to see the South Mecklenburg High boys with a 2-3 mark entering a Tuesday, Dec. 11 game against Harding.

The Sabres are coming off a strong 2011-12 playoff run, during which they pushed eventual Class 4A state champion West Charlotte to overtime in the third round, and they returned three starters from that squad that finished with a conference title and a 23-6 record.

Instead, South Meck had endured a three-game losing streak, including what coach John Fitch called an “embarrassing” 70-28 loss to Winston-Salem Mount Tabor. The Sabres, who opened the season as the Southern Mecklenburg Super 7’s No. 1 team, has fallen out of the rankings for the first time in more than a year.

But while Fitch didn’t anticipate his team losing three of its first five games, he knew it might take a while for South Meck’s talented-but-young squad to find its footing.

“Yes, we have the three seniors,” Fitch said with a smile before taking a dramatic pause. “And the other nine or 10 guys on the team have zero varsity experience, so it’s just a matter of trying to learn how to play with each other.

“I don’t know how good we can be. But with our nucleus, and if everybody starts learning their role on the team, which they are, I think we can be very competitive against anybody that’s on our schedule.”

To that end, the Sabres’ record might be a little deceiving, because Fitch said he’s noticed growth in his team, even as it endured consecutive losses to Mount Tabor, Mallard Creek and Charlotte Catholic. And on Friday, Dec. 7, South Meck bounced back to take a 67-56 road win over West Meck.

“We’re definitely going to take some lumps,” Fitch said. “We laid an egg against Mount Tabor, which was really embarrassing. (Our players) just got caught up in the moment. I couldn’t believe what happened in that game.

“But then we turned right around and played a very good game against Mallard Creek (in a 55-51 loss), and Mallard Creek’s a very good, very experienced team. I’m seeing our confidence improve. To come off three straight losses, build an 18-point lead against West Meck and (watch the Hawks) cut it to six, (our kids) didn’t fold. They hung in there, and that was huge for us because some of our young players played key roles.”

And so did the veterans, especially 6-foot-9 senior center Malcom Mathews, who’s been virtually unstoppable while registering triple-doubles in back-to-back outings. Against Charlotte Catholic, Mathews finished with 20 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks – and he did it in 2½ quarters because of foul trouble. In the West Meck win, he totaled 12 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks. And he just missed another triple-double, posting 18 points, 16 rebounds and eight blocks against Mallard Creek.

Senior guards C.J. Thompson and Chris Phifer also have played pivotal leadership roles, helping newcomers such as Grant Hedberg, Earl Olivers, Nakyree Stephens, Noah Menke, Michael Smith, Mac Schott and Max Bazin make the transition to varsity ball.

“I feel like we’re getting there,” Fitch said. “But with us having so many new players, it’s all about (improving) the little things.”

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