As playoffs approach, Cavs rediscovering their groove, not to mention winning ways

Coaches whose teams hit a hot stretch often don’t want a break in the action. That break, they say, can kill momentum and send soaring teams plummeting back to Earth.

Such was the case for the Lake Travis basketball team. The Cavaliers opened the season with seven straight wins and hit the Christmas Break with a sparkling 16-2 mark. The break flattened the Cavaliers’ momentum, and when the team took the court again in January, what came so easily just weeks earlier had seemingly vanished.

The Cavaliers lost three of five District 14-6A contests after two sluggish wins to find themselves in the unfamiliar position of second place. Lake Travis entered the season having won or shared district championships in each of coach Clint Baty’s three seasons in charge.

Baty’s teams have used a balance of solid defense and balanced offense to rule district play. This year had been no exception, at least until January. While the Cavaliers’ defense remained solid – Lake Travis has allowed opponents just 49.8 points per game overall, 48 in district play – the offense lost its focus – or more accurately, its touch.

Over a seven-game stretch in which the team fell out of first place, Lake Travis shot just 34 percent from the field. The two worst outings came in losses to Hays (27 percent shooting for 38 points) and Anderson (29 percent shooting for 37 points).

“We got into the sluggish stretch where we weren’t being aggressive,” said senior guard Tate Searle. “We were playing decent defense, but we just became stagnant and we settled for a lot of perimeter shots without trying to get the ball inside.”

Coaches will try anything and sometimes everything to break a team out of a slump. Prior to Lake Travis’ Jan. 30 game at Austin High, Baty made a change. Instead of their normal jerseys, players had to wear a teammate’s jersey.

“We talked this week about playing for our brother,” Baty said after the Cavaliers played the Maroons. “Put on someone else’s jersey and play for him.”

Jerseys can be deeply personal items to athletes. Many pick their numbers at a young age and try to hold onto that number throughout a career. Searle can’t remember wearing any number other than No. 3.

To change mid-season – and to then change for each game – reinforced Baty’s desire to make sure players all had the same goal in mind, that no one simply played for his own glory.

“[Changing numbers] was a pretty big deal for us,” Searle admitted. “It was weird, but everyone loved the idea. It reinforced the idea that everyone was focused on winning and not on anything individual.”

While the jersey switch provided a visible change, the Cavaliers’ play proved a much more telling factor. Attacking the basket relentlessly and pushing the tempo when the opportunity presented, Lake Travis shot better than 50 percent from the floor for the first time in 2015 and rolled to an 82-67 win.

“Coach didn’t want us to get stuck playing in the half-court,” Searle said. “He would rather we take the break initially and then if nothing’s there fall back into the half-court. We hadn’t been doing that.”

Jake Budde, who dumped his No. 20, led the breakout effort, making 12 of 17 shots from the field and all seven of his free throws for a season-best 31 points. Christian Seidl, formerly No. 22, also found his shooting stroke, making five of seven, including three of four from deep, to snap out of a four-game stretch that saw him make less than 25 percent of his shots. Searle added 13 points and four assists.

“I talked with Jake before we played Austin High and we basically said that if one of us was aggressive, the rest of the team would take their cue from that and it would be contagious,” Searle said. “Jake just took over and that led to everyone else being aggressive.”

Seidl continued his hot shooting the following week against Westlake, scoring 19 points on seven of eight shooting and a perfect three of three from deep. The team hit 51 percent against the Chaps.

The Cavaliers’ big three enjoyed another solid night Friday against Bowie. Searle led the way with 18 points while Budde chipped in with 17 and Seidl had 12.

“It helps that we’ve made some shots,” Searle said, “but the big thing was starting to attack the basket. When we attack, that opens things up on the three point line and we’ve been making them.”

As the Cavaliers enter the home stretch, Budde’s averaging better than 21 points per game since the team began switching. Seidl and Searle both average 15. With production like that, expect the Cavaliers to keep wearing different jerseys.

“It still feels weird, but I think we’ll keep doing it,” Searle said.

The Cavaliers, 23-5 and 11-3 in district play, are peaking at the right time

“It’s about focusing on just the next game,” Searle said. “When we were losing games earlier in the season, we were focusing more on the future and the playoffs. We weren’t taking it game by game.”

With just one regular season game left – a district-title showdown with Hays – it’s easy to focus on the singular task at hand.

“We just want to take it one step at a time from now on,” Searle said.