Even an event with the history and tradition of the M.T. Rice Holiday Basketball Tournament isn’t afraid to reinvent itself, to change with the times.

The 58th annual M.T. Rice Tournament will tip off on Thursday at four Central Texas sites — Midway High School, Midway Middle School, Lorena High School and Connally High School. And, for the first time since the venerable tourney played its first games in 1961, there will be two girls divisions: A large-school (6A and 5A) and a small-school (4A and under) division.

“We’re kicking off the small-school division with nine teams,” said Midway girls coach Ben Holder, who doubles as the tournament director. “We’ve had schools like Lorena and Connally be gracious enough to open up their gyms as locations. We’ll have teams from all over the state here this weekend. … We just keep getting bigger and bigger every year.”

Holder said that tournament organizers have been toying with the idea to add a separate division for the small-school girls teams for the past several years. Now that it’s come to fruition, he expects a more competitive event than ever.

“When we started putting this thing together a few years ago, we wanted to bring M.T. Rice back to what it once was,” Holder said. “The whole idea was to grow this to be the best Central Texas tournament it could possibly be. To do that, we definitely wanted to incorporate different divisions, which you see at most of the major tournaments across the state. We think this will give us lots of competitive games, which is exactly what we want.”

The small-school girls division will have a decidedly local feel to it. Connally, at 17-0 on the season and ranked third in the state in the TABC’s 4A poll, could be the team to beat, with its collection of sizzling shooters, led by junior Miannah Little (24.9 ppg, 6.9 apg).

The small-school field includes a pair of Connally’s district foes in Lorena (12-6) and La Vega (5-9), as well as Buffalo, McGregor, Crawford, Evant, Whitney and the Midway Red squad, which will be made up of a mix of Midway’s JV players and varsity backups.

The host Midway Pantherettes are the defending tournament champions, and should again make some noise in the big-school division. Last year, Midway won its 25th all-time M.T. Rice title, though its first since 2009, when it stifled Kerrville Tivy, 48-38, in the championship game.

However, the Pantherettes graduated the starting backcourt — Janaiya Davis and Caleyah Burrell — from that 31-win team, and are still finding their way this season. They’re off to a 9-10 overall record, along with a 4-2 mark in District 12-6A play.

“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Holder said. “We’ve definitely had to work our way through some injuries, as at one point we had three girls missing significant time with concussions. We also don’t really schedule lightly, as we try to play a number of Top 20 opponents, and some nights we fare better than others.”

Holder isn’t about to alter his scheduling mindset, though. He said he wants to test his squad against such high-quality opposition, because “if you’re not challenging your team, you’re not doing anything to make them better.”

The M.T. Rice tourney should help in that regard. The 20-team big-school girls division features two of Midway’s district opponents in Waco High and Belton, along with Class 5A University. Cedar Park (15-2) is ranked eighth in the state in Class 5A, while Fort Worth Boswell (16-4) is ranked 11th in 5A. The rest of the field includes Keller Timber Creek, Ennis, Pflugerville Connally, Midlothian, Rockwall Heath, Oak Cliff Faith Family, St. Agnes, Nacogdoches, Houston Yates, Hutto, San Antonio Cornerstone, Crowley, Clear Springs and Round Rock Westwood.

On the boys’ side, could this be the year that Midway ends its M.T. Rice title drought? It’s certainly in play. First-year head coach Matt Brown has the Panthers off to a 13-5 start and ranked 16th in the TABC Class 6A poll. Behind heady guards Anthony Scott and Diego Gonzalez, Midway should be one of the teams to beat, as it looks to win its first M.T. Rice crown since 1983. The Panthers are 0-9 in M.T. Rice finals since then, last reaching the title game in 2014, when they fell to Pearland, 70-65, in overtime.

Houston Christian (15-5) is the reigning tournament champion, and should be tough again. However, the Mustangs have graduated last year’s tourney MVP Miller Kopp, now a freshman guard at Northwestern University in the Big Ten.

The 24-team boys bracket serves up a chance to see some of the top local teams in action. Besides Midway, other Centex squads involved include Waco High, La Vega, Robinson, China Spring, Temple, University and Connally.

The rest of the boys field consists of Mansfield Legacy, Austin Anderson, Manor, Georgetown, Pasadena Memorial, Pflugerville Connally, Fort Worth Eastern Hills, Nacogdoches, Converse Judson, Lake Ridge, Houston C.E. King, Austin Bowie, Montgomery, West Oso and Pearland.

While the girls are splitting up into separate divisions, all the boys teams will compete for one title for the foreseeable future.

“We’re not really sure (if we’ll bring separate divisions to the boys brackets),” Midway’s Holder said. “Some of the smaller teams have said that they enjoy the competition of facing the bigger schools. Like, one of the good local games we’ve got (on Thursday) is Connally and University, and I think both teams are anticipating that game.

“We’ll take it on a year-to-year basis, and definitely we want to incorporate the opinions of the local coaches, especially those who are offering up their gyms to help make it work.”

Tournament action will start at 9 a.m. Thursday and culminate with Saturday’s championship games, the last of which will tip at 3 p.m. The Tribune-Herald will have coverage of all three days of the tournament, and fans can also follow the results at the tournament’s Twitter feed (@m_tournament).

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