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Plymouth Whitemarsh’s Naheem McLeod shines on big stage

Plymouth Whitemarsh's Naheem McLeod dunks the ball against Central Bucks West. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)

PHILADELPHIA >> Plymouth Whitemarsh head coach Jim Donofrio said that his junior center Naheem McLeod loves playing on the big stage.

And why shouldn’t he? That’s where the 7-footer got his first real introduction to high school basketball.

McLeod was a reserve during his freshman year in 2016 and got into games during garbage time. But during the district championship game against Chester at the Liacouras Center — the biggest stage — he was thrown into the fire. He was a game-altering presence in the paint and had some key blocks and rebounds to help the Colonials rally to a title.

“I love Temple,” McLeod said. “The games are packed. Everyone is screaming. Even CB West kids were screaming my name. I was like, ‘This is wonderful.’ I love the moment. I want to embrace it until it’s all over.”

He started as a sophomore and has been one of the most dominant players in the area this year as a junior. The game he may have had the smallest impact in, however, was the Suburban One League Tournament championship game against Central Bucks West. He scored six points and grabbed three rebounds.

In the District 1-6A semifinals Tuesday night at the Liacouras Center against those same Bucks, McLeod topped his numbers before the first quarter was over.

He scored a game-high 21 points, grabbed six rebounds, blocked a handful of shots and influenced CB West each time they thought about driving into the paint.

“Some games people don’t match up well with,” Donofrio said after the Colonials’ 68-46 win. “You got two choices — either Nah raise your game and be what you can be — a 7-foot-3 seriously talented major division one prospect or we’re going small.”

He certainly raised his game. He had one of his more impressive offensive games of the season, making some hook shots and layups to go along with a few dunks. He also showed improvement at the free-throw line, shooting 5-for-7.

“They say I don’t have any post moves,” McLeod said. “So I figured I’d show them a little bit of it. They say all I do is dunk so I just switched it up a little bit and made my free throws too.”

McLeod finished the first quarter with 11 points and four rebounds to help the Colonials build a 19-5 lead. The outcome was never in doubt after that.

“I just wanted them to know my name,” he said. “Last time we played them I had six points the whole game. Frustrated, didn’t play much, was getting beat backdoor. I just felt like I wasn’t contributing to the team. So today I just found that moment and just woke up.”

In the first meeting, West was physical to get him off his game. Jake Reichwein — 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds — and Jack Neri — 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds — kept McLeod out of the paint and off the stat sheet.

McLeod worked on toughening up since that game and it showed in his dominant effort.

“We’ve got this pad that’s super long,” he said. “I just get hit in the head, the face. They try to beat me up. I just laugh and keep going through it.”

Who holds the pad?

“Coach D. He doesn’t stop. His energy is wonderful. Never stops.”

McLeod will face his biggest test of the season Saturday when Plymouth Whitemarsh takes on No. 2 Abington in the district championship game at the Liacouras Center at 6 p.m. The Ghosts feature 6-foot-8 junior forward Eric Dixon.

“It’s going to be a crazy battle,” McLeod said. “We talk a lot. We talk about colleges that we like. We talk about a lot of things. We knew we were going to play each other Saturday. No. 1 vs. No. 2. It’s going to be crazy.”

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