GONZALES — There is no shortage of big men in the Baton Rouge area in 2013. Consider East Ascension High’s Ja’Cardo Hawkins to be another big man staking his claim to a lead role.

The 6-foot-7 Hawkins scored a career-high 28 points, had 12 rebounds and blocked eight shots to help the Spartans power past McKinley 66-56 in a District 5-5A opener Friday at EAHS.

“Our losses were in close games and most of our wins have been by big margins,” EAHS coach Kenny Almond said. “It was a good ballgame. This may be the first time we’ve been pushed like this and been able to win.

“In this district, you can expect more of that. I thought Ja’Cardo played well. Some of those blocks he had were crucial.”

East Ascension (19-2, 1-0) led by as much as 15 points in the first half, only to see McKinley (9-9, 0-1) rally within two points in the third quarter and four points in the fourth quarter. Javaughn Williams added 15 for EAHS.

“Maybe it was the weather outside,” McKinley coach T.J. Pugh said tongue-in-cheek, noting the rain outside. “We dug ourselves a hole and every time we tried to shovel some dirt into it we couldn’t fill it up.

“We fought hard and played to the very end. But we never could get that one shot or play that would put us over the top. East Ascension’s a good team. They’re experienced and they did what they needed to.”

There were some hardships for McKinley.

Lanard Daniels scored 17 points but missed a large chunk of the second half with a sprained ankle. Delwin Rodney added 12, but fouled out during a quick third-quarter sequence before Pugh could pull him out of the game. The duo are the other Panther players who played significant minutes last year when MHS was the Class 5A runner-up.

Hawkins and Shiervan Ursin teamed to help East Ascension build a big early lead. The duo combined for 14 first-quarter points — eight by Hawkins and six by Ursin. McKinley didn’t score until Rodney made a jumper at the 4:58 mark.

The Panthers got within seven at one point. But a baseline jumper by Hawkins sent the Spartans into the second quarter with a 20-9 lead.

EAHS continued to extend its lead in the second quarter. Williams had six points in the quarter. The Spartans led by as much as 15 points. Williams’ layup on a fastbreak made it 29-14 with 5:33 to go in the half. EAHS also led 36-21 at the 2:34 mark.

McKinley scored the final 10 points of the half with Daniels leading the way. Daniels scored 12 second-quarter points, including a 3-pointer right before the buzzer to pull the Panthers within 37-31.

It was more of the same for McKinley when the third quarter started. Post player Kean Smart scored twice under the goal in the first 90 seconds to pull the Panthers within two points, 37-35.

A series of missed shots and turnovers followed. EAHS forged a little breathing room when Williams sank a 3-pointer from the baseline, making it 42-35 at the 5:09 mark.

McKinley kept battling back. The Panthers cut it to three points twice as the quarter progressed despite losing Rodney to fouls.

Hawkins had a basket and a free throw that put EAHS ahead by six. But Kendrick Cannon made a jumper at the buzzer, pulling McKinley within four, 49-45.

A basket by Hawkins and two free throws by Jeremy McInnis helped EAHS extend its lead once the fourth quarter began.

McKinley continued to battle and got as close as four points again, at 60-56 when, Kyle Woods made a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 1:30 remaining.

Williams then made four free throws in the final 48 seconds to help ice the win.