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PREP FOCUS: Generals' game, psyche on the mend

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOANTHAN HOUSE - Grant's Deiondre Bird (right) looks to score against Lincoln's Tim Graham in their Jan. 31 game at Grant.Things are looking up again for the Grant Generals boys basketball team.

Just look up at the scoreboard.

The Generals have won three games in a row. The latest triumph victory came Tuesday night at Cleveland, 77-56 in a non-league game involving PIL teams.

The Warriors stayed with Grant for about a quarter, but the Generals' combination of hot shooting and pressure defense put them ahead by 16 going into the second half. Grant pulled away in the third quarter and was able to empty its bench in the final frame.

Grant coach Paul Kelly says his team is gaining momentum after a stretch of nine straight losses, most of them with standout wing Deiondre Bird on the shelf with a broken jaw.

"We just had to stay together as a group," Grant coach Paul Kelly says.

The 6-6 Bird is back, and so are the Generals.

Bird's soft shooting, mostly from midrange, produced many of his game-high 24 points at Cleveland.

Dylan Leonard, Grant's 6-4 senior wing, slashed his way to 15 points in a co-star role on offense.

The Generals (9-10) can get back to .500 — they started 5-0 — with a victory Thursday at Class 6A league rival Sheldon. But the Irish are formidable — they are No. 4 in the Oregon School Activities Association rankings and own a 15-4 record. Grant is No. 16.

Sheldon and South Eugene lead their league at 4-2. Grant is 2-2, Lincoln 2-3 and Thurston 1-4. The top three finishers will avoid a 6A play-in game.

The Generals beat Sheldon 76-62 at Grant in their fourth game of the season.

"I believe we can get back to playing that kind of basketball," Kelly says.

Or maybe even better.

"Even during those early games, we were playing well enough to win, but we weren't playing our best basketball," Kelly says. "Not everything was clicking."

Grant's current streak includes victories over Lincoln 60-56 and Madison 86-66. Beating the Portland Interscholastic League rival Cardinals on Jan. 31 to end their skid was huge for the Generals.

"We needed that one really badly for our morale and psyche," Kelly says.

The Grant-Lincoln game came down to the final minute. It also came after two excruciating losses — in overtime at Thurston, where the Colts hit a 3-pointer at the regulation buzzer, and by one point against Wilson, with the Trojans hitting the game-winner at the buzzer.

"That was very mentally deflating, but we as a coaching staff refused to let the kids stay down," Kelly says. "We told our guys that no one can get us out of this situation except us, that there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. The kids just buckled down and focused on details in practice, all the little things. It was all about the camaraderie and caring for each other."

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Grant senior Deiondre Bird (right) confers with coach Paul Kelly during the Generals' Jan. 31 victory over Lincoln.Bird makes a difference, too. The senior made his 24 points look easy on Tuesday.

"His role is expanded," Kelly says. "We don't just look for him to score. He has faced a lot of double-teams and probably led our team in assists. He's playing all over the court, basically playing all five positions, bringing the ball up the court, high post, low post, wing … the more we move him around, the harder it is for teams to game-plan.

"And our other guys are learning to play off of him. His presence, whether he's scoring or not, means so much to our team."

Conditioning is about the only thing Bird needs a little more work on to get back to 100 percent, but that is coming around, as well.

"He's playing with a mouth guard, which restricts his breaking a little, but he's getting used to that," Kelly says. "And we're taking a few extra timeouts, trying to get him a blow."

Leonard was a perfect complement in the Cleveland game.

"Dylan has been one of our most consistent players, scoring and rebounding, the whole year," Kelly says. "He's our hardest worker. In the offseason, he's always in the gym, working on his game, and it's starting to pay dividends for him."

Grant's depth is coming along, too, although much of it is inexperienced, and that includes 6-6 junior post Duarte Papa-Vicente, now regularly in the mix.

"Duarte has buckled down off the court and in the classroom, too, and that's been like a huge weight lifted off of him," Kelly says. "It's crucial to have another guy like him who can help us on the backboard and defend.

"We have more pieces now than we did at the beginning of the season."

That includes experienced 5-9 junior guard Darren Kennedy, 6-1 senior guard Luke Atherton and 5-9 junior guard Alondre Augustus, among others. Grant also has regained the services of 5-9 sophomore guard Russell Tillery from an illness that landed him in a hospital for about a week.

"Those guys are important to our press," Kelly says. "We scramble on defense and rotate, and try to force teams to make passes over the top, so we can get deflections or make them throw a bad pass out of bounds."

But Kelly notes that a big key for Grant the rest of the season will be its execution on offense in the halfcourt.

"The playoffs are different," he says. "You probably are going to have to win a 50- or 40-point game, because the scoring goes down."

After Thursday's game against Sheldon, the Generals will end the regular season with home dates against Thurston on Friday and South Eugene on Feb. 21, then a short trip to Lincoln on Feb. 25. A late push by Grant could even give the Generals homecourt in the playoffs.

"But it's not going to make much difference to us, whether we play at home or on the road," Kelly says. "We're going to be ready to play. And if you're a top-ranked team and we've got to come to your home … I wouldn't want to play a Grant team that potentially is top-10."