You knew it had to be a knock-down, drag-out district scuffle when no fewer than three players left the court to try to stop the flow of blood.

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Connally coach Quentin Snell said, chuckling.

Nicks and cuts be darned, the 19th-ranked Connally boys basketball team scratched and clawed their way to a hard-fought 68-54 win over China Spring on Friday in an entertaining tussle between District 17-4A co-leaders at the Connally gym.

A regional tournament team in 2016-17, Connally hasn’t ducked anyone this year in its quest to push on toward the state tournament. The Cadets (14-9, 3-0) played a variety of stalwarts throughout nondistrict play, including a number of higher classification foes at Midway’s M.T. Rice Tournament last week.

Snell said that he wants to challenge and stretch his team in such ways, because he knows opponents like China Spring (14-10, 2-1) will do so.

“We like to schedule like that, so that when opportunities like this approach – because I feel like our district is pretty tough – hopefully we’ve been tested up until that point,” Snell said. “China Spring is a great test, they’ve got two of the best guards in the area. Those dudes can play, man, they’re really good.

“They cause some problems for us, but we were able to come in and make some big shots whenever we needed to and got a few stops at the right times.”

In March (and sometimes in January), teams often go as their point guards go. If that’s the case, then the Cougars and Cadets are in well-equipped hands.

Connally senior Trajan Snell and China Spring junior Antwan Stephens have established themselves as two of the top guards in Central Texas, if not beyond, and they set the tone for their teams from the jump in an up-and-down first quarter.

Stephens poured in 10 of his game-best 23 points in that opening frame, displaying a knack for piercing the Cadet defense for scoops to the hoop.

Snell, meanwhile, spoon-fed his teammates for several easy buckets, including a 35-foot alley-oop to Sidney Hadden sneaking along the baseline and a gorgeous left-handed outlet pass to a streaking Zailin Cleveland for a layup. Snell finished the game with nine points and 12 assists.

Connally held a slim 14-12 lead after a quarter, but started to gain more separation in the second. The Cadets swarmed the Cougars into several fast break-fueling turnovers.

“We had some turnovers that led to some leak-out layups,” China Spring coach David Ellis said. “Credit to them, they forced the turnovers and we just got sloppy with it. … To compound it, we went cold in the second and third quarter there. But credit to them, they forced us to make tough shots.

“Of course Trajan is so good and just driving and kicking, so they had a great game plan. I’m proud of our guys, we kept fighting, but just some untimely turnovers. We had some calls that didn’t go our way, but we’ve got to keep playing through it.”

Connally shot out to a 33-23 lead when Snell broke down the China Spring defense off the dribble for a runner. The Cougars’ gifted freshman Eli Stephens answered with a 3-pointer on the other end, but Connally executed a perfect final possession to set up Cleveland for a corner trey at the buzzer, and he drilled the shot to give Connally a 36-26 halftime lead.

China Spring pulled back within 40-32 three minutes into the second half when Antwan Stephens found that the bank was open on a 3-point bomb. But moments later, Hadden rejected a shot by China Spring post Tyrick James and the Cadets converted the takeaway into a layup on the other end, and Connally maintained a double-digit lead the rest of the way.

James, who will attend Tulane on a football scholarship, struggled with foul trouble on the night and never really found his rhythm, finishing with only five points. With 5:17 remaining in the game, he was whistled for an offensive foul – his fourth – on a power move in the post, then was subsequently tagged with a technical foul for his fifth personal after disputing the call.

“He got frustrated,” Ellis said. “Kids are going to feel slighted, and Tyrick being such a physical specimen, I think sometimes he’s looked at as he’s the one who committed the foul just because he’s so thick and big. And honestly it frustrated me, because I thought a couple (of the calls) were some hacks. And then frustration just compounds itself, and it leaked into his defense.”

Connally displayed a well-rounding scoring attack, with three players in double figures. Cleveland scored 15, Je’juan Forward attacked the glass with abandon and finished with 14 and Jha’len Carter added 10. Hadden chipped in eight to go with Trajan Snell’s nine.

Eli Stephens contributed 16 points for China Spring.

Midway 61, Belton 37

BELTON – The Panthers ran away from the Tigers in the second half to improve to 3-0 in District 8-6A action.

Midway (17-6, 3-0) led by 12 at halftime, but turned on the jets in the second half to turn the game into a runaway.

GIRLSChina Spring 61, Connally 36

The Lady Cougars bottomed out nine 3-pointers – including four apiece from Abbie Snyder and Macie Reeves – in outgunning the Lady Cadets.

China Spring (18-6 overall, 4-0 in 17-4A) took control by outscoring Connally, 20-3, in the second quarter. Reeves drilled four 3-pointers in the second quarter alone on her way to 14 points. Snyder had 12 points, Summer Emblem hit for a team-high 15 and Gabby Cleveland had 13.

Miannah Little found her stroke in the second half for Connally, hitting a trio of 3-pointers, and finished with 18 points.

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