Samaad Hector can’t remember when it exactly it happened. Maybe it was 12, or 13, or 14 years ago. Somewhere in there.
While in Los Angeles, he met LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. It was then he committed himself to basketball. At the mention of Bryant’s death he zones out, apologizing and refocusing. The question had already brought him to tears once.
This fact was only cemented Wednesday night, as both teams gathered as not opponents, but temporarily all pilgrims at the altar of basketball, one of its greatest devotees gone, the suddenness so extreme it’s somehow impossible.
Hector scored 28 points with 20 rebounds, the final one coming fittingly on the offensive end with a putback two-handed slam that was equal parts tribute and gavel.
“With the tragedy that happened on Sunday, it really hurt me,” he said. “It’s a sharp pain in my stomach. I get sick to my stomach when I even think about it. For somebody who had such a big impact on my life, and then to come out and do this for Kobe — it means a lot to me. I think every time I step on the court it’ll be all for him.”
Hector’s athleticism doesn’t need a game to be understood. It pops in the layup lines as easily as anyone. It’s smooth, effortless, confident. It doesn’t demand your respect. It knows it already has it.
That shows in his rebounding. His instincts tell him where the ball is going but his legs get him to it quick. He doesn’t jump high — he jumps really high, though — he jumps fast. He can jump late and still get there first.
But Hector’s game doesn’t rely on his athleticism. He’s clever. His footwork is intricate, his moves around and under opponents is nifty and his touch is deft while shooting from angles that require it. He shot 10-of-12 from the floor and 8-of-12 from the line and did not shoot a 3. His team didn’t need it. His team needed him inside, so that’s where he worked.
“The fact that they only play about seven guys, us — Lower Columbia and the bigs — wanted to exploit that and get them into foul trouble, which we did,” Hector said. “Then they have to play one of their bigs and we tired him out the whole game.”
It’s more than offense, though.
He plays good team defense and talks and gets guys positioned and changes shots without getting cheap fouls from sniffing blocks.
“Samaad’s been a catalyst for us all year long,” LCC coach Mickey Polis said. “You can look at the stats and the stats tell you one thing (Hector leads the NWAC in rebounding at 14.7 rpg). They also don’t tell you everything. He’s been a big leader for us. He’s someone that’s really matured this past year. And he’s putting up numbers, man. He’s putting up numbers.”
LCC needed Hector to be dominant.
Tacoma entered Wednesday’s tussle with just four wins, compared to LCC’s 17, but that is a dishonest stat.
Of the Titans’ 15 previous losses, only four came by 13 or more points. They have scorers, and defenders, and rebounders. It wouldn’t be an easy night.
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Early on it looked like it might, but Tacoma never went away. LCC jumped to an early 17-6 lead and led 42-30 at the half.
Everything was going swimmingly. Hector had 18 and 8 and no Titans were in double figures yet, plus Emmette Linton III, Tacoma’s dangerous guard, was just 3-of-10 from the floor, thanks to Cody Young’s pestering defense.
“(Linton) is a tough player,” Polis said. “To hold him to 16 points, really good job.”
The Titans slowly carved into the lead. Jordan Parker hit corner 3s. Elijah McLaughlin slashed. Linton scored off the dribble. LCC gave up offensive rebounds and Tacoma did everything in its power to keep the ball out of Hector’s hands.
One of those Parker corner 3s cut the LCC lead to 71-68 with 5:42 to play, then Solomon McGinnis grabbed an offensive rebound and scored 20 seconds later, keeping it a two-point game after Alexis Angeles (17 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) doubled LCC’s advantage.
But LCC bowed its back and didn’t let Tacoma get closer. And it did it at the free throw line.
Angeles hit four key free throws in the last minute and Hector his all of his four second-half attempts, seemingly remedying a season-long struggle.
“We had some guys that stepped up outside of (Hector),” Polis said. “We know that. He knows that. So we gotta find ways to get other guys involved in the game.”
Also important was Martis Johnson. He added 15 points with 7 rebounds and 3 steals. Johnson tried to bang home a dunk on a fast break, and it was in the wake of that crowd-pleaser than Hector snapped the rim himself.
Johnson was 6-of-12 from the floor and did not miss from the 3-point line or the charity stripe.
Between Hector’s interior dominance, Angeles’ crafty perimeter scoring and Johnson’s energy, it’s a trio Polis can depend on. But only when Johnson is aggressive, like trying to hammer one home out of nowhere.
“I was real proud of Martis,” Polis said. “Martis continued to be aggressive tonight.”
Lower Columbia (18-4, 6-1,) visits Centralia next Wednesday at 8 p.m.
Lower Columbia 87, Tacoma 74
TACOMA — Emmett Linton III 16, Elijah McLaughlin 16, Jordan Parker 16, Kashaud Babbs 11, Solomon McGinnis 9, Isaiah Jackson 4, TeJhan Potts-Woods 2.