At one point, late in the fourth quarter, China Spring’s 5-foot-7 pesky gnat of a point guard Eli Stephens swooped in from the perimeter to snatch a rebound in the lane. A particularly perplexed University High basketball fan spoke for many when she bellowed, “Where’d he come from?”
Eli Stephens and his older brother Antwan Stephens, as they often do to opponents, confounded the Trojans. The siblings scored 22 points apiece as China Spring shot down University, 61-41, in the final of the bronze bracket on Saturday’s closing day of the M.T. Rice Holiday Basketball Tournament.
While “Where’d he come from?” might have been the question of the moment, “Where are they headed?” is the query that could be directed at all 50-plus teams that participated in this week’s 58th annual tournament, hosted by Midway along with help from Connally and Lorena.
The answer for the local teams was this — none were headed to the big-school championship games. For the first time since 2000, neither the boys’ nor the girls’ M.T. Rice championship games featured a Central Texas team. (Lorena’s and Connally’s girls, however, both went 4-0 in different pools of the inaugural small-school bracket that wrapped up on Friday.)
Yet while the title games may have been off-limits to the area’s top teams, thanks to some outstanding play from the likes of Mansfield Legacy (the boys champion) and Fort Worth Boswell (the girls’ champ), that doesn’t mean that the Centex squads have aimless futures. Many still own aspirations of district championships (and beyond) once league play either starts or resumes, depending on the team, next week.
The China Spring boys (10-10) are one of those teams with dynamic dreams. Cougars coach David Ellis purposefully loaded his team’s schedule with an array of higher-classification teams, with the idea of stretching and testing the players.
Consider them stretched.
“At times I feel bad because I want our seniors to get wins and I want them to feel great and have a great record, but I also want our seniors to win our district,” Ellis said. “We finally got to double-digit wins, and it’s been a grind. It really has. There’s been some down moments where I felt bad, I scheduled too hard, the kids are looking at me going, ‘Man, Coach, give us one break, give us a breather.’ But we stuck with it, and I’m just proud of the way, especially in a tournament like this, the way we responded.”
Indeed, China Spring represented itself well. After dropping its first two M.T. Rice games to Class 5A Nacogdoches and 6A Converse Judson by a combined eight points, the Cougars bounced back to win their next three games against three more higher-classification foes in Montgomery, Georgetown and University, all by comfortable margins.
Against University, China Spring seized control with a sensational second-quarter surge. The Cougars led just 11-10 at the end of one quarter, then University took the lead early in the second on a Wilson Boggess bucket off a well-executed inbounds play. Little did the Trojans know, however, that the lid would suddenly slam shut on the hoop.
University didn’t hit another basket in the quarter, despite some point-blank opportunities. The Trojans’ big man Quavion Mitchell, who led his team with 15 points, twice came up empty on consecutive inside putback attempts in the quarter.
Meanwhile, China Spring demonstrated keen ball movement in working for open outside shots. Antwan Stephens busted three 3-pointers in the quarter and Mason Wright added a pair of net-nuzzling bombs, all thanks to the team’s crisp passing.
“You know, a lot of coaches have different philosophies, but our motto is that we have some great shooters around the perimeter, and we have guys who can get to the bucket and free them up,” Ellis said. “So there’s been times where we’ve struggled, but we just haven’t given up. We have the ability to score.”
China Spring outscored the Trojans, 25-3, in the second, opening up a 36-13 halftime cushion.
University’s veteran coach Tarl Lloyd must’ve made some sage halftime adjustments, because the Trojans responded well in the third. Mitchell supplied big-time power in the paint, and Amari Gibson provided some lively activity on both ends, including hitting a sweet corner trey just before the third-quarter horn. The Trojans outscored China Spring by nine in the third to trim the Cougars’ lead to 47-33.
But Eli Stephens frequently acted as a run-stopper for China Spring. Not in a middle linebacker’s sense, but rather Stephens neutralized University’s rally bid by consistently breaking the defense down off the bounce and creating shots for either himself or teammates. Eli scored 16 of his 22 in the second half.
“The high school game is that if you have great guards you can be pretty good, and we have two really great guards,” Ellis said. “They were in a zone, our ball movement was great, then they went to man, and we didn’t stop. … . It was good to see us do that, especially against a team like University, which has a great tradition of being a great basketball team. To do that, I thought we represented Waco pretty well.”
Wright finished with 13 points for China Spring, while two University players joined Mitchell in double figures. Boggess scored 12 and Gibson had 11.
In the boys championship game, Mansfield Legacy survived an overtime thriller with Pearland, 61-60, to claim its first-ever M.T. Rice title. Tre Tennyson was named tournament MVP for Legacy.
In the girls’ big-school division, Midway didn’t nab the trophy it wanted, as the Pantherettes were denied a chance at repeating as M.T. Rice champions with a 54-39 loss to Keller on Friday.
However, the Pantherettes didn’t allow that one slip-up to completely bump them off-balance. Midway closed out a 5-1 record at the tournament with wins over Crowley (47-37) and Keller Timber Creek (49-41) on Saturday, taking the third-place prize.
“We went 5-1 in a quality tournament,” Midway coach Ben Holder said. “I definitely think we came together as a team and bolstered some confidence, cleaned up a lot of the little mistakes we had earlier in the year. Our press definitely looked a whole lot better today than two weeks ago, even. So any time you can have more games, it gives you an opportunity to correct more of those mistakes.
“So I’m happy about that. And third place in the M.T. Rice, it’s not where we want to be, but five wins and one loss is respectable.”
Against Timber Creek in the third-place game, Midway’s defense kept it in the game until its shooters found the range. The Pantherettes (14-11) built a 13-9 lead after one quarter, but its accuracy waned in the second. Midway didn’t hit a shot from the field in that period, scoring four points all from the foul line, and the Falcons did just enough to swipe a 22-17 advantage by the halftime stoppage.
Midway kept scrapping, though, and surged back with a 20-point third quarter. Keziah Bachert trimmed the deficit to 29-27 when she dropped in a layup off a perfectly-illustrated press break. Then late in the third, the Pantherettes started counting in multiples of three, as Shamaryah Duncan bottomed up one from the top of the key and Reaghan Ridge drilled a pair on identical inbounds plays.
“Ridge is a great shooter, for sure,” Holder said. “Any time we run a set or any time we have a down screen, I trust her to set her feet and knock it down.”
Midway’s shooting outburst pushed the Pantherettes to a 37-31 lead by the end of the third. They were able to hang onto that lead in the fourth as the fouls started piling up, and Timber Creek ran out of steam.
Duncan has enough size that she could easily play in the post for Midway, but she also handles and shoots the ball well. So Holder uses her as a guard, often as the team’s primary ball-handler against a press.
“Obviously her height allows her to see the floor a little better, especially when teams try to press us,” Holder said. “So that’s kind of what advocates for her to be in that position. And then she can shoot the ball pretty well. Against Nacogdoches the other day she hit five threes in a game, as well as Reaghan Ridge. She’s definitely just a guard who can handle the ball, plus shoot the ball, so it’s a natural position. … If you noticed, she didn’t come off the floor much.”
Bachert scored 13 points to power a balanced scoring effort for Midway. Timber Creek senior Mele Kailahi topped all scorers with 20.
In the gold bracket championship game, the Boswell Lady Pioneers, regional semifinalists last year, claimed their second M.T. Rice title in three years with a win over Round Rock Westwood. Boswell, the 11th-ranked team in 5A in the state, improved to 22-4 with a perfect run through the tournament.