In the initial seconds after Raytown extended its winning streak to 11 games on Friday, senior Will Nelson was greeted by an onslaught of family and friends who wanted to talk about his 18-point night.
Nelson surmised it might have been the best game of his senior season — and it lifted Raytown to a 59-43 win against visiting Liberty North — but Nelson was not thinking about his points.
Instead, he had in mind a couple of passes to big men Jailen Gill and Derrick Walker, who combined for 25 points and four dunks.
“Did you see those?” Nelson asked. “I set up two of those dunks.”
The sense of pride exhibited by Nelson’s statement illustrated the cause-and-effect for Raytown’s midseason turnaround. A team that opened the year 2-6 now stands 13-6, including a perfect 7-0 in the Suburban White Conference.
Asked for the primary factor for the winning streak, Nelson responded, “We learned that we can’t play selfish.”
Nelson opted to lead by example Friday night, and the result was this: All five Raytown starters contributed a bucket in the opening quarter, when the Bluejays opened a 13-point lead. That advantage stretched to 23 points by halftime — when Raytown had already forced 12 turnovers — and the lead reached 28 points early in the third quarter.
“We started off great tonight with a lot of focus and a lot of energy and a lot of communication,” Raytown coach Cody Buford said. “That’s pretty close to as well as we’ve played all year. It was fun to watch and fun to see.”
Not so much for Liberty North.
Trying to pull even with Raytown in the loss column in conference play, the Eagles, 11-7, were held to one field goal in a lackluster opening quarter. Their starters were held off the scoreboard altogether in the first half.
Michael Hughes’ free throw two minutes into the third quarter represented the starting five’s first contribution on the scoreboard. Hughes finished with a team-high nine points, but they all came with Liberty North trailing by double digits.
By then, the outcome was obvious. Rather than tightening the Suburban White Conference race, Liberty North fell into third place. Staley moved into second with a win against Oak Park.
The top spot, of course, remained unchanged. And suddenly in a year that started with five consecutive losses, Raytown is emerging as the favorite for a second consecutive conference crown.
“We started off slow, but the games that we lost at the beginning of the season were all close games that prepared us for the rest of the season — like conference (games) right now,” Nelson said. “We knew that if we worked hard and played as a team, nobody can stop us. That’s what happened tonight.”