Last season, Lexington rode a deep and experience squad to the Class 4A boys finals.
With nine of the top 11 players graduated from that team, Nygel Gates has transformed his game to a different level.
The senior forward had his best outing of the season with 34 points and 15 rebounds in leading the Wildcats to a 67-44 victory over visiting North Augusta on Tuesday night in the Region 5-4A opener for both schools.
“He had to handle the ball against their pressure because it was giving us fits,” Lexington coach Bailey Harris said. “He had to bring it up the floor, set the offense, and rebound. He’s done it all year, just not in those numbers. North Augusta did a good job on taking away other things that we do but he was fantastic.”
Gates has embraced his new role. He was able to come off the bench most of last season and provide a spark. He learned watching players like Shaq Roland, and has taken to his new role easily.
“My role this year is a lot bigger,” Gates said. “Last year, we had a lot of seniors and guys that played a long time and this team is a lot younger, so I have to contribute in a lot of different ways.”
There was not much Gates didn’t do against the Yellow Jackets (9-4, 0-1). He finished 14-of-17 from the floor and routinely found open lanes to the basket. He made two shots outside of the paint because that was what the North Augusta defense was giving him. He had three assists.
“Most teams expect me to score a lot so they double-team me so I just try and kick it to a wide open player,” Gates said. “I guess they felt confident they could guard me one-on-one, so I took advantage of that every time they gave it to me.”
The biggest problem for the Wildcats (11-6, 1-0) has been protecting the ball. They have lost to top-ranked Irmo twice and Ridge View once along with three out-of-state teams.
They finished with 20 turnovers, with seven coming in the fourth quarter. Harris understands they need to protect the ball better.
“I’m still not real sure how we won by 23 with that many turnovers,” he said. “We need to get better at handling pressure.”
Gates had 14 points in the first half when Lexington built a 32-24 lead at the break. He scored the first eight points of the third quarter.
North Augusta made five consecutive shots at one stretch and pulled within 44-37, with a little less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter. Lexington then held the Yellow Jackets scoreless for nearly 91/2 minutes, and used a 15-0 run during that time to take firm control.