BENSALEM >> Dean Behrens remembered seeing Naheem McLeod as a freshman and getting an idea of what the Plymouth Whitemarsh big man could be.
Saturday, Behrens got an up-close look at what McLeod has become and is on his way to becoming. The veteran Pennridge coach admitted it was his first time coaching against a 7-foot-2 player and for most of his players, their first time seeing that size.
McLeod, who’s had a great season, added another chapter Saturday with 26 points and 10 rebounds as the Colonials topped Pennridge 79-55 in a Suburban One League tournament semifinal at Bensalem.
“You could see he was developing and you give him credit, because he must have put in a lot of work on his game to get better,” Behrens said. “You don’t get that good without putting time and effort in. As an observer and not knowing much about him, I’ve seen him really progress and he’s become a very good basketball player.”
McLeod showed more than his scoring touch on Saturday, he showed toughness. The Rams did everything they could to slow the 7-foot-2 junior center down from double teams to extra-physical defending but McLeod didn’t wilt. That, as much as the footwork or coordination, has been a huge part of his development.
PW coach Jim Donofrio called McLeod “the most upbeat person you could ever be around” and praised how far the big man has come in just a few short years.
“As a seventh grader, he was told stand under the basket and don’t do anything, as an eighth grader, it was the same idea, as a ninth grader, he was able to be on our bench,” Donofrio said. “He’s been in our school system and there was nobody really thinking he could be anything. That kid should be incredibly proud of himself for making himself into one of the biggest, most touted recruits in the Philadelphia area.”
PW (23-0) scored the first seven points of the game but to Pennridge’s credit, the Rams (17-6) were able to settle in and trailed by just two, 14-12, at the end of the first quarter. Pennridge has an improving junior of its own in guard Sean Yoder, who fought as hard as he could to keep the Rams in the game.
Donofrio, while not a fan of the SOL tournament, did view the chance to face Pennridge as a good opportunity for his group. He said it was the first time all season the Colonials were able to face a team so rigidly disciplined in its system on offense and it challenged his team’s concentration.
“Pennridge kids just don’t go away,” Donofrio said. “They play with great heart. They have great toughness, they have a great system and they have great shooters. We had to really concentrate on defenses, so that’s one more step up for us.”
McLeod drew so much attention that it in turn opened things up for his teammates. Guard Ish Horn was the main beneficiary, scoring 22 points mostly by attacking the space vacated by the defenders trying to help on McLeod.
Horn also put a cap on PW’s dominant second quarter with a 3-pointer to beat the halftime buzzer. The Colonials outscored Pennridge 20-10 in the second and the trio of Horn and twins Ahmin and Ahmad Williams spent most of the game taking turns guarding Yoder.
“That’s what most teams are going to do, they want to stop Naheem but the rest of us are pretty solid too,” Horn said. “It was just concentration. When they made their run, we started playing at their pace then we were able to get back to ours.”
Behrens’ team earned its right to play in the SOL tournament and he felt his players represented well. The final score was lopsided in PW’s favor, but Behrens saw a lot to take away from their effort and felt the fact his group hung with PW should give them more confidence.
Yoder scored 11 of his 23 points in the third quarter, but PW’s lead stayed at double digits the whole way. Despite being hounded by three tenacious defenders, Yoder battled and added five rebounds and three assists to his totals.
“Sean is as good advertised and I think more and more people are starting to realize what he’s all about,” Behrens said. “There’s a reason so many schools at the Patriot League level are looking at him.”