There have been few more satisfying weeks for the Denison Yellow Jackets than how they spent their past seven days. It certainly has been a while to even consider a stretch which could top it.
It started with a last-second victory against Wylie East, continued with a revenge victory over rival Sherman — the first win by Denison over the Bearcats in nine tries — and it culminated with what happened on Friday night.
“That buzzer-beater gave us a lot of momentum and confidence,” junior guard Zaelin Wimbish said. “Coach has emphasized we’re good enough to play with anybody. To make the playoffs, it’s a big deal.”
Despite coming up short on the scoreboard as the Jackets hoped to earn a third straight victory, Denison was able to earn a playoff spot. It is the first postseason appearance for the program since 2011.
“I want them to very proud of it. It’s a great accomplishment,” Denison head coach Dale Rhodes said. “We’ve done some things that haven’t happened in a while. I don’t want it to stop there.”
First-place McKinney North came away with the 77-47 victory in District 10-5A action but it was the game down in Princeton that clinched it for Denison. When the third-place Panthers knocked off Sherman, the Jackets avoided having to sweat out the final night of the regular season to end their playoff drought.
“It sets a precedent. Now we can build on it and continue to grow,” Rhodes said. “It was our goal. We talked about it and talked about it. They could see it. Now they have it.”
Cade Gordy and Keleon Vaughn scored 11 points each while Wimbish finished with eight points and Tarrence Gaines chipped in six points for Denison (8-19, 3-6), which will enter the playoffs as the district’s fourth seed. The Jackets close out the regular season by hosting second-place Lovejoy on Tuesday night before facing the District 9-5A champion on either Feb. 18 or 19.
Brandon Frazier scored 17 points, Nick Partee added 13 points, Todd Jones chipped in 10 points and Chris Bucy finished with nine for McKinney North (23-5, 9-0), which had already locked up the district championship.
The Jackets looked ready to tussle with the Bulldogs in a face-paced first quarter. Jones and Nate Uber swapped three-pointers to open the game before North jumped in front.
Denison chipped away at the early deficit, getting within one on a Gordy three-pointer and then jumping in front at 15-14 with 1:15 remaining in the frame on a three-pointer by Vaughn.
Frazier and Jones followed with baskets to give the Bulldogs an 18-15 advantage going into the second quarter.
At that point North stepped on the gas and stepped things up defensively to break the game wide open. The Bulldogs scored the first 21 points of the second quarter over a six-minute stretch to take a 39-15 lead before Gordy’s three-pointer on the left wing with 2:15 remaining before the break.
Wimbish followed with a free throw for the only other Denison scoring in the stanza and McKinney North went into the locker room with a 41-19 advantage.
“They showed in the first quarter we can compete with them and then they make a run and we go right back to all the bad habits,” Rhodes said.
Denison never got closer than 20 points the rest of the way and North was able to move one step closer to an undefeated district run. But the sting of the lopsided loss faded away after the Jackets learned for the first time in eight years there was something more to play for beyond the regular season.