Published 4:30 pm Thursday, December 2, 2010

CUMBERLAND – Rashawn Sims' ally-oop dunk to start the Marcus Gregory era at Cumberland High School may have given a glimpse of things to come.

But the 33 turnovers committed by the Dukes in their season-opening contest, a 70-44 loss to cross-river rival Prince Edward, was a reminder of the present.

“That was the one play we executed correctly in the first half,” said Gregory, “and everybody did what they were supposed to do.”

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Unlike football, where it's possible for a team to score early and hold a team off the rest of the way, that's not the case in basketball.

“Oh, I would've taken a 2-0 victory with playing strong defense,” added Gregory.

Strong defensive play is Prince Edward's trademark, and the Eagles used a rotation of aggressive zone defenses and the long jumper on the offensive end to take control of the game in the third quarter.

Up 23-17 at halftime, PE more than doubled its first-half point total in the third period. Helped by five three-pointers, the Eagles held a commanding 50-27 lead heading into the fourth.

Djuan Wilburn hit three wide-open three-pointers in the third quarter, and guard Darius Ford scored 12 of his game-high 30 points to help PE take a commanding lead.

“We really worked on our different defenses during the summer camps, and got the kids to buy into the concept,” said PECHS head coach James Scott. “We stressed that they needed to trust each other, and understand that if they work hard on the defensive end, good things will happen offensively.

“We got some good, open looks on the other end, and thank the Lord they went in.”

For Cumberland, the Dukes got an immediate assessment on what they need to improve upon in their non-district schedule.

“Prince Edward will quickly show you what you need to work on,” said Gregory, who played for Scott as a prep standout, before going on to a four-year career as a point guard at Hampden-Sydney. “We stressed that we needed to box out and take care of the ball. We didn't do that tonight. They killed us on the boards, and I don't care who you're playing, when you commit 33 turnovers, you're not going to win.

Gregory was quick to praise the Eagles, and their ability to exploit their opponents' weaknesses.

“In one way, it was good that we found out early-on what we need to work on,” said Gregory, who admitted to having some butterflies heading into his varsity coaching debut. “We're building toward the district schedule. We could've played a team that would've given us a false sense of security. Then, where would we be?”

Prince Edward was led in scoring by Ford, who had eight steals on the night, while Wilburn scored 12 points, all on three-pointers in the second half. Raheem Smith posted nine points, eight rebounds, three steals and three blocks, while Walter Chrismas scored seven points, to go along with nine rebounds, two steals and a block.

As a team, the Eagles were 12-23 from the foul line, but was 7-10 in the fourth quarter.

Cumberland was led by Devonte Booker, who scored 25 points on the night, while Sims added ten points. As a team, the Dukes were 15-25 from the free throw line.

The Dukes were playing without the services of two injured would-be starters, and had two second quarter injuries, including one that forced low-post player Harry Bailey from the game in the second quarter.

“Our rotation was hampered somewhat, but that's no excuse when you factor in 33 turnovers,” said Gregory.

After a slow start that saw the Eagles and Dukes play to a 10-10 tie at the end of the first quarter, Prince Edward settled down on both ends of the court. Scott was pleased with his team's in-game progress.

“We have some strong leaders on and off the court, and when they settled in, the rest of the team did as well,” said Scott. “Cumberland has a nice squad. They were aggressive and physical, and they came right at us.”

After being hit hard by graduation entering the 2009 season, the Eagles surprised more than a few folks last season when they posted a 13-7 record and made it to the finals of the Southside District Tournament, before running into perennial Group AA power Brunswick in the tournament finals.

The Eagles earned the No. 4 seed in the Region I, Division 3 Tournament, before being turned away by Bruton in the Quarterfinal round.

Graduation didn't hit the Eagles quite as hard heading into this season, but they must replace guard Tyandre Harris.

Ford returns to the backcourt, and shared duties with point guard Stephone Evans on Wednesday night.

The Eagles went with a small lineup last year, and haven't gotten much bigger, with the exception of center Tyrek Goode, who will provide the Eagles with more inside presence than they did last year.

“We've been working on our conditioning in the offseason,” said Scott. “We've got to stay in shape, because we're going to try to get up and down the floor and attack the basket more.”

But there is one catch.

“We've got to play defense,” said Scott. “For us, it all starts there. The guys want to run, and we will when we can, but we've got to play defense first. That's where you get most of your fast break opportunities, anyway.”

Brunswick should again be the favorites to take the Southside District title, according to Scott, but when he praises the other six opposing teams in the district, he's doing so out of necessity, and not to just avoid giving any opponent bulletin board material.

“Really, any team in this district is good enough to make a run at the top of the district. The Southside is one of the strongest districts in the state, and people know it. I went to a coaching clinic over the summer, and someone asked me what district we were in, and when I told them, they were impressed.

“Brunswick will be the favorite until someone knocks them off, but beyond that, there is no clear favorite.”

Before his coaching debut, Gregory admits to having some butterflies, especially since his first game as a varsity head coach was against his old mentor.

“I probably only got about three hours of sleep last night,” said Gregory. “I have so much respect for Coach Scott. He brought me through the ranks as a player and as an assistant. I was glad I could coach my first game against him.”

The Dukes enter the 2010-11 season hobbled by some lingering football injuries, and they're still in a getting-to-know-you mode with their new coach.

“Our goal is to be healthy and ready by the time the district schedule begins,” said Gregory. “We have two guards in Booker and Sims who are as capable as any two we'll face. We've got to work on being disciplined with the ball and to try to get an inside presence. Like we saw tonight, we've got to box out down low, but if they keep working the way they have in the offseason, we'll be ready for the district.”

Of course, in their way is Buckingham, which finished as the Group A, Division 2 State Runners-Up last year, and Randolph-Henry, which matched the Knights step-for-step in the James River District last season.

“They're as tough as ever, and I wouldn't count out Amelia, either. We've got a solid district one-through-five, and we'll have to be ready to play every night.

“I believe we'll get there, but as we saw, we definitely got some things we need to work on.”