In need of their most efficient, most polished effort of the season, the Waco High Lions served up just that.
Displaying a frenetic, yet completely controlled pace from the jump, the Lions pounced on Midway for a 65-42 win in Tuesday’s regular-season finale before an appreciative crowd at the Waco High gym. That win, coupled with a Copperas Cove loss to Ellison, helped Waco High (21-12 overall, 8-8 in district) snatch the fourth and final boys’ basketball playoff berth out of District 12-6A.
Midway (24-11, 12-4) was already assured a playoff spot coming into the night, but dropped from a second-place tie with Ellison to third in the league with the loss.
Waco High coach Earl Farley didn’t have to conjure up his best Al Pacino in “Any Given Sunday.” No inspirational pregame speech was required.
“They knew what was on the line, we talked about it,” Farley said. “We practiced on that part, we had to have a lot of energy, we had to take care of home.”
The calendar has flipped a few pages since Waco High’s 47-37 loss to the Panthers on Jan. 15 at Midway. And it was rather evident, as the Lions made a night-and-day difference in their play.
Waco High busted out of the gate with a frenzied energy, and matched that with a display of crisp execution in its half-court game. Jordan Fuller served notice that it might be a pretty good night for the home team for the first basket of the game. The junior guard made a furious charge into the lane while a Midway defender descended on him and grabbed his arm, yet Fuller still managed to fling up an off-balance bank shot while drawing the foul.
“You know it’s going our way then,” said Farley, with a chuckle.
Fuller let out a primal scream after hitting the bucket, and the tone was set. Of course, the guard had to give a hat tip to the basketball gods for that one.
“I didn’t expect that to go in,” said a grinning Fuller, who scored 10 points. “There was a lot of intensity coming off the crowd, a lot of things going on. I just tried to lock in and play my game. We just had to lock in as a team.”
With Dale Smith doing damage from the high post, and Jimmy Veal and Tim Coaster adeptly engineering the offense from the backcourt, Waco High played with plenty of polish. Meanwhile, Midway – which had a considerable size advantage – couldn’t capitalize in the paint, as the Panthers let an assortment of bunnies slip away, missing several first-quarter layups.
Waco High led 12-6 after a quarter, then showed that wasn’t a fluke by opening the second on a crowd-pleasing 9-0 run. Veal pick-pocketed a Midway ballhandler for a steal and breakaway layup, Smith cashed in an open 14-footer, and Remond O’Neal tossed in a floater during the surge.
Midway was again without injured junior guard Anthony Scott, and his absence was noticeable on the floor. Scott is the Panthers’ jet pack, the fuel that makes the Panthers fly with his incredible baseline-to-baseline speed. Without Scott, his backcourt mate Diego Gonzalez had to play more on the ball, and though Gonzalez played well – scoring 12 points – he couldn’t pick up enough of the slack to push the Panthers to the win.
At one point in the second quarter, Gonzalez went diving out of bounds into a pack of scurrying Waco High cheerleaders to make a behind-the-back save, only to slap a pompom on the floor in frustration when the ball went right into a Waco High player’s hands.
Waco High stretched its lead to 30-15 at the halftime break after Coaster dished a pass to Kenneth Bell for a buzzer-beating jump hook. In the second half, Midway whittled the lead to 12 at 37-25 following a Gonzalez free throw with 3:31 left in the third quarter, but Waco High immediately answered when Fuller rattled in a 3-pointer from the corner on the next trip down.
It was one of two shooter’s-bounce treys for Fuller in the period.
“Everything that was happening, I thank God for it,” Fuller said. “It was happening my way, and I hope we go to the playoffs and take care of business there.”
Smith topped Waco High with 16 points. For Midway, Gonzalez’s 12 led the way, while big man Levi Whiddon added 10 points. The Lions were able to limit Midway’s other big man, 6-foot-7 junior Godsgift Ezedinma, to only eight.
Waco High made the playoffs last year under Farley in Class 5A. But this trip felt even sweeter to the Lions, whose jump to 6A had some observers thinking they’d be in over their head. The Lions were picked last in the district in several preseason prognostications.
“I’m very proud of my team,” Fuller said. “Coming up to 6A, we knew it was going to be tough. At the beginning of the season, we were looking at how they had us ranked and stuff, and we weren’t even in the top five, top six. They had us dead last. For us to come in and do this, I’m very proud.”
Waco High will face Rockwall in next week’s bi-district round at a site and time to be announced, while Midway’s opponent is still unclear, thanks to a tie in District 11-6A.
For the Lions, there’s certainly a happy-to-be-there kind of vibe.
“That’s all you can ask for, to give yourself a shot. I’m proud of the guys,” Farley said. “We’re blessed.”