At the beginning of this season, the Banks County boys’ basketball team struggled to find its identity, starting the season 3-4 and in search of answers.
Since then, a different team has emerged for head coach Mike Cleveland, where before the season, he said the team had “chemistry.” Clicking on all cylinders, the Leopards have peeled off a 10-game winning streak thanks to the emergence of several key factors: size, players stepping up and unselfish play.
Unselfish play may be the biggest key of all. At the center of the Leopards’ resurgence, which has the team sitting unbeaten in region play, is Kahmal Wiley.
Wiley calls the team “family” and during the roughest part of the season players picked each other up when they got down. With some injuries to several players, younger players “stepped up” in bigger roles, like Carl Cleveland, Wiley said. Cleveland led the team in scoring against Rabun County and Cottondale.
“Everybody and everything is just going in motion now,” Wiley said.
Coming into this season, Wiley saw four starters around him graduate.
“Coming into this thing, I knew it was going to be a lot of young guys,” Wiley explained. “Coach talked to me, ‘Even when times are bad, always keep a positive attitude,’ because a lot of these young guys look at me as an example.”
Wiley tries to keep his “cool” going into big games, which is now rubbing off on the other players, he added.
At the beginning of the season, Wiley was the go-to guy for scoring. Now, Wiley sees the offense evolving as different players have emerged to lead the team in scoring on any given night, from Wiley and Cleveland to Dylan Orr, Gabe Martin and Darius Bonds.
“A lot of teams are going to look at me and sometimes double me and stuff like that, so I try to get it to the open guy every time,” Wiley said. “They get it, they put it in the basket. They know how to score.
“All I try to do is keep a positive attitude, because a lot of them are nervous stepping into some of these games. But once things get rolling, everybody calms down and plays how they play.”
Wiley’s seen during the streak the younger players get more “comfortable” and playing how he knows they “can play,” and one of those players, along with Cleveland, who has grown into his role is Darius Bonds.
“Darius can put the ball anywhere you want,” Wiley explained. “You’re open, he’s going to give it to you. He’s that type of guy. He’s going to pass it to you first.
“Runs the offense well. Handles it well. He’s going to put it where it needs to be. Trust him as a guard. Get into position and he’ll give it to you.”
With the hard schedule the Leopards have faced to this point, which includes two games in Florida, Monticello, Rabun County, East Hall (twice), North Hall (twice), Wiley sees the “nerves” going away and the “A” game coming out of his teammates.
At 6-foot-4 235 pounds, Wiley is one reason the Leopards’ size is making a difference in games. The Leopards, at times, seem automatic getting rebounds. The last five games the team has 43, 45, 44, 41 and 52 rebounds, respectively.
“When a ball comes off the rim, coach harps on it a lot that, ‘That’s our ball,’” Wiley said. “’We’ve got to go take that off there. We’ve got to take it among ourselves. The smallest things, like that, win basketball games.’
“We try to make sure we get every rebound. We get loose balls. I feel like that helps a lot, gets things swinging, too, just hustling.”
With momentum rolling, the region crown is a real possibility for the Leopards. But, Wiley doesn’t get too far ahead, and by that, he doesn’t look past the next game in line for the Leopards.
“Games down the road, we’re not even thinking about right now,” he emphatically explained. “We’re trying to take it one game at a time.”
However, that doesn’t mean winning the region title isn’t something he doesn’t think about it or work towards every day.
“It’s very important,” he said. “I strive to it every day. Out here in practice, we go at it. It feels like a real game in here. We go at it real hard.
“Not only do I want it but everybody wants it. Everybody in this community wants it. We’re going to give it all we’ve got.”