Hawks have tools to make deep playoff run

As a player at New Boston and in 13 years as a head coach at Clarksville and Pleasant Grove, Billy Brewer has been a part of many great teams but has never advanced beyond the fourth round, the regional semifinals.

The Hawks playoff journey begins at 8 p.m. Tuesday night against Canton at Mount Vernon High School. The winner gets the winner of Chapel Hill-Tatum.

In seven years at PG, Brewer’s teams have always posted at least 20 wins, and have always won a bunch of playoff games, but never made it past the fieldhouse at Texas A&M-Commerce. Maybe this team, with a district 14-4A championship and No. 1 seed tucked in its back pocket, will still be standing when the final four play March 3.

Or maybe not.

Xavier Benson eyes a foul shot at North Lamar.

“The potential to be a great team is there,” Brewer said. “Right now, we’re between being a good team and a great team. I think we’re focused now because it’s the playoffs and one bad night and you’re gone.”

Three of five starters and two key reserves joined a 10-1 team in late December after a state football championship was secured. Every night the Hawks take the court, it is obvious they are taller, stronger, better conditioned, and deeper.

Most nights, that is enough. With a run-and-gun offense and continuous full-court press, the Hawks grind down even good teams. Since the football players joined, the Hawks have gone 11-4. That includes 8-2 in a tough district that might well start the playoffs 4-0.

On other nights, Pleasant Grove looks a bunch of football players trying to play basketball. Rebounds are missed, passes go to empty spaces, no one steps out to cover the other team’s hot shooter. The two district losses came by a net margin of six points and with a combined 50 turnovers.

Landon Jackon defends in the paint against North Lamar. Photo by Joe Watson

“They say, ‘Hey coach, we’re going to be the ones to carry you to state,’ and they can,” Brewer said. “God gave them a lot of ability, but to make a playoff run we have to play to our capabilities, we have to have that dog instinct that says, ‘Hey, let’s take this team out.’”

Over the past 15 games, a starting five coalesced. Senior Xavier Benson, a Texas Tech signee, and freshman Landon Jackson – fresh off a recruiting visit to the University of Texas – anchor a big, tough and athletic interior.

As in football, where he made the game-saving pick-six in the state championship football game, Benson is the playmaker, scoring double digits in the paint, making key rebounds and playing dogged, in-your-face defense all over the court.

“Xavier is coming into his own,” Brewer said. “He’s starting to get his basketball legs. He was getting in three workouts a day, but he’s cut back for the playoffs. He’s scoring more and really improving his defense.”

Kameron Woods drives the base line.

Jackson led in football with 11.5 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, and 23 quarterback pressures.  He was third in tackles with 98, was named to the all-state third team.

At 6-foot-seven and growing, he is at once a work in progress and a highly productive player. With three to five blocks a game, he changes the other team’s defense. When he has a rebound blocked out and in his sites, there is no way to take it from him.

Assistant coach Blake Thomas, a big man himself, puts Jackson through rigorous inside-game workouts. That is starting to show in multiple ways, including in the big guy’s shooting touch.

“Landon improves every week,” Brewer said. “Once he gets his hand coordination down, he’s going to be a great player.”

On the outside are a pair of perimeter shooters. One is Aaron Harmon finished the state championship game with a pick-six as time ended.  He and Cameron Wells each have put up 20-plus point games. Both are close defenders and are tall and athletic enough to crash the boards.

At point guard is senior Griffin Young, a capable court general.

“Griffin is our catalyst. He’s smart. He sees the court well. He’s a great ball handler and he takes command of the offense,” Brewer said.

Griffin Young looks for the open man.

When Brewer goes to the bench, there isn’t much drop-off, if any. Noah Fawbush is a first-rate guard and dependable scorer. The other two Harmon brothers, Ben and Luke, are solid players. Luke is one of the best shooters on the team.

Then there is Jackson’s big – in this case, a relative term – brother, Layton, a sophomore who is turning into a big man with guard-like grace and shooting skills.

Though Landon plans to play in the NFL, Layton takes after his father, who played four years of pro ball in Europe.

“Layton is the more pure basketball player of the two,” Brewer said. “He’s getting better every game.

“I love the way our subs play,” Brewer said. “They play with enthusiasm, with energy, and with their hearts. They come prepared to play well.”

So, is this the team?

“I think this team can go as far as it wants to go,” Brewer said. “They have so much character. Thanks to football, they learned how to win. I’m blessed to have these kids.”