The cheer in the Denison locker room was plenty loud enough to be heard in the hallway but the reverberation stretched so much further than that.
It went all the way back to 11 years ago, the last time a group of Lady Yellow Jackets knew they were going to the basketball playoffs.
“We've been so used to losing and getting our teeth punched in and then we started winning,” junior guard Olivia Marr said. “It feels really good to make the playoffs.”
Zya Nugent had 16 points, eight assists and five rebounds and Denison put a stranglehold on third place with a 52-40 victory over fourth-place Denton in District 5-5A action at Denison on Friday night.
Taryn Gaines scored 12 points and Ikia Lacy finished with 11 points and eight rebounds for Denison (18-9, 6-3), which needs only one win or a Denton loss over the final three games to lock in third.
“Making the playoffs, we haven't been in awhile,” Lady Jackets head coach Rod Been said. “This junior class, what they've sacrificed is huge. Their freshman and sophomore year it wasn't what they thought.”
In those two seasons, Denison won 15 games combined and just four in district play. With another strong defensive effort against the Lady Broncos and a balanced attack that almost put five Lady Jackets in double figures, the gap between the 2005-06 squad is officially closed.
“From last year to this, we had to believe in ourselves and each other,” Nugent said. “We've shown we're better. We've got to continue to work hard.”
The team has won as many games this year as the past three seasons combined and won as many district games as the previous four seasons combined.
Sydney Finch scored 19 points to lead Denton (10-17, 5-5), which needs just one more win or a Sherman loss to earn the final playoff spot.
The Lady Broncos were within seven points with 3:42 remaining on a pair of free throws by Taylor Howell but Denison held Denton scoreless the rest of the way while Lacy notched all five Lady Jackets points in that span to put the game out of reach.
Madison Nixon came up with a steal and Lacy blocked a shot and came down with the ball on back-to-back possessions to help Denison move closer to the clinch.
“They made plays. Defensive end was a team effort,” Been said. “It was key for us to maintain that lead.”
Nugent scored 13 points in the first half and was carrying the offense before the rest of the Lady Jackets picked up the slack. With her and Marr pushing the tempo and finding driving lanes, Gaines and Lacy turned out to be the beneficiaries of those passes.
“Dealing with the pressure, finding post players for easy baskets,” Been said about Marr, who also took four charges at the other end of the floor. “That makes us so much tougher to defend. Her grit and her toughness means so much.”
It was a frantic pace in the third quarter that provided the best offense for both teams. Denton was able to take a pair of leads, albeit only for a total of less than 40 seconds, in the first half of the stanza.
Lacy and Gaines, who combine with Hannah Hittson to provide that post presence, scored and when Gaines did the honors with 5:01 left in the third it was the last time Denison trailed.
“Between those three we've got a nice rotation,” Been said.
Marr made a three-pointer from the wing to push the lead to 32-23 only to have Finch answer from long distance. Marr then immediately found Gaines for a layin and foul to stem any momentum from staying with Denton. Gaines had two more baskets in the quarter, including right before the quarter ended for a seven-point lead.
“It's exciting to be a part of a team going to playoffs, even though I'm only a freshman,” Gaines said.
The Lady Jackets started the second quarter on a quick 5-0 spurt and eventually built an 18-10 margin midway through the frame. There was only a Nugent free throw in the next couple of minutes and Denton took advantage to go into half-time down just a point after Vivica Hughes' layup right before the buzzer.
Denton had the lead for almost the entire first quarter. Finch started the game with a three-pointer and gave the Lady Broncos an 8-4 margin before Denton went scoreless the final three minutes.
Zachareia Sommers scored underneath and Nugent made a free throw and then banked home a jumper with 27 seconds remaining for a 9-8 lead.