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High school basketball: McLaurin makes Carthage better

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When Peyton McLaurin showed up at Carthage in 2012 and started playing pick-up basketball with some of the Comets’ varsity players, boys basketball coach Jeff Ventiquattro was immediately impressed with the newcomer’s ability to shoot the ball and his knowledge of the game.

Ventiquattro also thought that McLaurin, a talented 6-foot-3 transfer from Erie, Pa., could help elevate the Comets from merely a Frontier League contender to a legitimate Section 3 contender as well.

Nothing McLaurin has done the past two seasons has made Ventiquattro change his opinion of the quiet young man. It may be just coincidence, but since McLaurin’s arrival, the Comets have won 30 of 32 games, including starting this season 12-0. They made the Section 3 Class A semifinals a year ago and are now poised to make a serious run at the Class A crown this season.

All of that is on the shoulders of a calm and cool junior who shows little emotion on the court, but is a fierce competitor.

“I try not to get too dramatic if I make a big shot or do something good,” McLaurin said. “For me, it’s all about the team and us achieving our one goal, to make it to the (Carrier) Dome and the sectional finals. Nothing else really matters.”

Last year, Ventiquattro initially played McLaurin at shooting guard early in the season to take advantage of his ability to knock down perimeter shots. But when the Comets had trouble handling pressure and getting into an offensive rhythm, McLaurin was switched to point guard and the Comets took off.

“I played some point in middle school, but I was a wing player mainly,” he said. “It was a pretty easy move, except that now I had to get my teammates involved first and then look for my shot second.”

McLaurin finished the season averaging 16.1 points for the 18-2 Comets. But Ventiquattro and McLaurin both knew there was so much more he could accomplish as a point guard this season.

“Peyton has improved his decision-making and he now distributes the ball really well,” Ventiquattro said. “He has also improved his quickness and rebounds the ball better.”

McLaurin’s scoring output is down just a little, to 15 points per game. He’s not shooting as much, but he is averaging four assists and four rebounds and is hitting nearly 80 percent of his foul shots.

“Peyton really understands that his surrounding cast is very talented and the scoring burden is not squarely on his shoulders,” Ventiquattro said. “When we need him to score, he still can. But spreading the ball around and finding open teammates is just as important.”

Starters Walter Jeter, Andrew Smith and Keyan Pinnock also average in double figures in a very balanced attack, thanks in part to McLaurin’s ability to deliver the ball to them at the right time.

“We’ve got so many scoring options that it’s made my job a lot easier,” said McLaurin, who has still hit double figures in every game but one. “Coach told me to still look for my shot if it’s there, but my biggest job is as a distributor.”

Looking to improve his game in a variety of areas, he spent time this summer at the prestigious Five-Star Camp in Louisville, Ky. There, he had the opportunity to meet and be mentored by one of the counselors, Louisville All-American guard Russ Smith.

“He helped me learn everything about the position,” McLaurin said. “How to get everybody involved, better post moves, how to slow down and not force things and to see the entire floor. It was a great learning experience.”

He also worked hard on ball-handling, extending his shooting range and catching and shooting quicker over the summer.

Ventiquattro said McLaurin’s improvement is readily apparent. “He’s a lot quicker with the ball and he’s cut down on his turnovers,” the coach said.

Still, when Carthage needs a big basket, Ventiquattro doesn’t hesitate to give the ball to McLaurin.

Against Indian River on Jan. 15, in one of the Comets’ few close games, McLaurin got into early foul trouble and sat for an extensive period. But when he got back in the game in the fourth quarter, he scored five big points, including hitting a key 3-pointer with 1:45 left, to increase the lead to six points in an eventual 50-40 Carthage win.

McLaurin scored 29 points against Lowville and 23 versus Massena in two of his last three games.

“He’s still our go-to guy,” Ventiquattro said. “Heading into the sectionals, he’s going to need to score more and Peyton is certainly capable of doing that.”

McLaurin will be trying out for several AAU teams this spring and will work on his game extensively. “At the next level, he’s going to be a really good point guard who can score and has great size,” Ventiquattro said.

And, yes, McLaurin was named for Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who will be playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

“My father was a Peyton Manning fan,” McLaurin said. “I actually got to see him play once in Indy and it was pretty cool.”

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