In the “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy has to go through a lot of hardship to finally realize that there’s no place like home.

Xaiver Armstead, a 6-5 guard from Midway playing his college freshman year, chose to stay close to home with the McLennan Community College Highlanders’ basketball team. The No. 20 Highlanders play their opening game in the Region V Tournament Wednesday as the No. 1 seed from the North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference.

Armstead has emerged as an integral part of that team.

For the year, Armstead is averaging a team-leading 14.9 points per game, shooting 49.5 percent from the field while hitting 46.7 percent of his 3-point shots. He’s also a reliable free throw shooter, making almost 84 percent.

Armstead has been recognized for his contributions to MCC. He was named Conference Player of the Week twice. In the more recent recognition, he scored a career-high 26 points against Collin County, only to top that with 27 in the Highlanders’ game at Temple. He had a total of 16 rebounds, six assists and four steals for the two games. He capped the season by being named the league’s Newcomer of the Year and by earning a place on the first team all-conference squad.

“I’ve known Xaiver since he was three years old,” said MCC coach Kevin Gill. “He and my daughter played on the same team when they were five or six years old.”

That connection paid off in the recruiting process. Armstead was a Super Centex standout at Midway and had a few offers, but chose to stay in Waco in large part due to his past history with Gill.

“Other schools were recruiting me, but knowing Coach Gill, I just felt comfortable with him,” Armstead said. “It’s going well, we have a good chemistry going.”

Armstead came by his love for basketball naturally. His grandfather Lonnie played hoops for Paul Quinn College and once had a tryout with the Houston Rockets.

Armstead’s well-rounded game has translated well to the junior college circuit. But he said that the transition hasn’t necessarily been as easy as it looked on game days.

“When I first got here, I wasn’t built right,” Armstead said. “I was pretty skinny. But with the help of (Gill), he molded me and shaped me into the man I am today.”

According to Gill, Armstead attended all the camps Gill offered and that Armstead listens and learns well.

“He’s reaping the benefits of being a gym rat and being coachable,” Gill said. “He also has a really good family behind him, supporting him and his coaches. He can shoot the cover off the ball and he’s a real team player.”

With Armstead helping to lead the way, MCC has won its third straight North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference Championship, earning Gill Co-Coach of the Year honors for the conference. It wasn’t an easy road to the title by any stretch.

“We’ve come a long way,” Gill said. “(With this young team) I didn’t know if we’d win conference or not, but the kids hung in there and we pulled it off.”

The team will take on Clarendon College, the No. 4 seed from the Western Athletic Conference. Clarendon (19-11, 9-7 conference) had a seven-game winning streak prior to conference play. It began conference play with six wins in its first seven game, before closing out with a 5-6 record. The Bulldogs secured their spot in the playoffs with a win over Frank Phillips College.

“Clarendon will be a tough contest,” Gill said. “They’ll give us their best shot.”

The Highlanders opened the year with 17 wins in their first 18 games, stretching their record to 20-1 overall and 3-0 in the conference before suffering their first conference loss to Collin County. It was the beginning of a 1-3 rough patch for Gill’s squad. But they righted the ship and reeled off five straight wins. Four were by double digits.

Gill has liked what he’s seen of late. “I’m excited about our guys playing their best in the last five games,” he said.

McLennan’s goal is to win the regional tourney and earn the right to play for a national championship. Armstead intends to be a big part of that run. “It would mean a lot,” he said.

He’s hoping to return to Waco with a national title trophy in hand. And that would really be a welcome home moment.

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