Laurel Highlands too much for Thomas Jefferson

Friday, January 29, 2021 | 11:10 PM

When preparing for the challenge of facing Rodney Gallagher and the high-powered Laurel Highlands offense, Thomas Jefferson coach Dom DeCicco is like most coaches.

He does all he can to get his players prepared in practice, while also understanding it’s nearly impossible to replicate the Mustangs’ speed.

LH put that speed and quickness on display as it turned defensive rebounds and turnovers into points in an instant en route to capturing a 73-60 victory in Section 1-5A play Friday.

“We worked on our transition, but it’s hard to simulate their speed in practice,” DeCicco said. “Their transition killed us tonight.”

Sophomore standout Rodney Gallagher poured in a game-high 20 points and went 7 of 10 from the free throw line for LH (4-3, 3-0), which featured four players in double figures.

Keondre DeShields netted 17 points, while Brandon Davis chipped in with 16. Jayden Pratt provided a spark off the bench, scoring in each of the final three quarters and finishing with 12 points.

“You got DeShields, Davis, obviously Gallagher, but Pratt was a beast inside for them, too,” DeCicco said. “I don’t know how they lost a game to be honest. They have a lot of good players.”

Thomas Jefferson (9-2, 1-2) trailed by five at halftime before LH opened the second half on a 9-3 run in the first 2½ minutes. Deshields scored five points during the spurt, while Gallagher and Davis hit buckets in between a 3-pointer from TJ’s Jake Pugh, who finished with four treys and 12 points.

Ethan Dunsey cut LH’s lead to 45-36 with 5:27 on the clock before freshman Evan Berger got hot from the field. Berger scored his first bucket of the game on a 3-pointer to cut LH’s lead to six and after a layup by Davis, he added a jumper inside to make it a 47-41 deficit before a Mustangs timeout.

A Pratt jumper and a 1 for 2 showing from the free throw line for Gallagher pushed LH’s lead back to nine, but Berger countered with a pair of threes in the span of around 40 seconds to allow TJ to come to within three at 50-47 with under a minute left in the third.

Berger scored all of his team-high 14 points in the second half.

“We allowed them to come back a little bit, but they made the shots,” LH coach Rick Hauger said. “There were a couple of positioning issues and some communication issues defensively that we had to straighten up.”

While Berger’s pair of shots from beyond the arc instilled some hope on the Jaguars’ sideline, LH did its best to put it to rest.

With under 40 seconds left in the quarter, Davis converted on a three-point play and Pratt followed up a critical steal with a layup to dash TJ’s hopes and give LH a 55-47 edge heading into the fourth quarter.

“They’re so athletic that you can’t make mistakes defensively. If you do, it kills you,” DeCicco said. “When you turn the ball over, it’s two or three points automatically the other way. For us, it’s a tough matchup to play them man because of their quickness and their skill.”

LH continued to gain further separation in the fourth quarter as it began the frame on a 9-2 run behind five points from Gallagher.

TJ once again cut the lead to 10 on a three by Pugh and a bucket by Ian Hansen, but the Jaguars were limited to just three points in the final three minutes. The Mustangs scored nine points during that span as they put an end to the Jaguars’ eight-game winning streak.

“They are a very good team. They’re well disciplined, well coached, they share the basketball, and they hit the boards,” Hauger said of the Jaguars. “I thought our energy was real good, and I thought we put them in bad situations at times with our speed and quickness.”

Both teams went back and forth in the first quarter as LH held a slim 18-17 lead after eight minutes. DeShields made his presence felt with eight points for the Mustangs, while Jordan Mayer and Dunsey each netted four inside for the Jaguars.

Gallagher heated up in the second quarter, scoring six points, while Tarrance Thomas-Brown contributed a pair of crucial 3-pointers to lead LH to a 36-31 halftime advantage.

Despite seeing his team take its first loss since Jan. 8, DeCicco was proud of the group’s refusal to quit.

He sees the defeat as a learning tool as the Jaguars prepare to take on Albert Gallatin on Tuesday.

“This is nothing but good. I know that’s stupid to say when you lose a game, but we’re 9-2 and we’ve played some good basketball,” DeCicco said. “We didn’t play horrible tonight. We just got outmatched in a couple of places.”

LH resumes play at Ringgold on Saturday.

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