It might be unfair to compare teams from season to season, but as Dale Rhodes continues to put his stamp on the Denison basketball program, his first year provided a baseline for future Yellow Jacket squads under his watch.
Denison did snap a seven-year playoff drought but managed do to so with only eight victories. So while the Jackets proved they were good enough to qualify for the postseason, they showed there was overall progress to be made.
“It's moving in the right direction. Chemistry's getting better,” Rhodes said. “Everybody knows where they're supposed to be. They're starting to play rather than think so much. That's what I like to see.”
The tangible success continued right before the Christmas break as the Yellow Jackets defeated McKinney Christian, 76-41, in non-district action at Denison.
Tarrence Gaines had 18 points, seven rebounds, five assists and five steals, Jadarian Price scored 13 points, Caleb Heavner chipped in 12 points and Keleon Vaughn and Zaelin Wimbish added eight points apiece for Denison (8-7), which competes in the NCTC Tournament starting on Friday.
“We're better when we move the ball. It's balanced,” Rhodes said an outing where eight Jackets made at least two shots. “We want everybody included.”
The victory also matched that win total from last season, with plenty of opportunities to add to the ledger before 10-5A play starts on Jan. 17.
“We want to build every year and we're on the right pace,” Rhodes said. “We're set up to be in a good place. Let's get to 15 (wins). We get there and then see where we can go.”
Hudson Cross scored 13 points, Blake McGrew added 10 points and Luke Gerdes totaled seven points for McKinney Christian, which was down just eight points at half-time.
Outside of the second quarter, when the Mustangs scored 18 points, Denison's defense held McKinney Christian to single digits in the the other three stanzas — including allowing just three baskets in the second half as the Jackets pulled away.
“I try to preach to them about letting the defense lead to offense,” Rhodes said. “We'll turn rebounds into fast breaks. We'll turn steals into fast breaks; that's why we pressure so much. There will be nights you don't shoot well. That's how you win the game.”
Denison used a pair of runs in each of the final two quarters to cruise to the win.
The first surge came after Luke Gerdes converted a three-point play to pull the Mustangs within seven. Vaughn and Wimbish hit back-to-back threes and then Gaines slammed home an alley-oop from Wimbish before he made a three-pointer for an 11-0 run that put the Jackets up by 18 points.
Heavner scored five points in the final minute of the third to give Denison a 54-34 lead going to the fourth and a 14-1 run to start that quarter sealed the outcome.
Gaines and Price started it with threes and Jakalen Fields hit a pair of shots, the last pushing the margin to 33 points at 68-35 with just under five minutes remaining.
Cross ended the run with a three-pointer and he scored all seven points for McKinney Christian in the quarter but the lack of help from the rest of the Mustangs sealed their fate as Denison outscored them 41-14 after the break.
Three-pointers by Vaughn and Wimbish helped Denison build a 10-point lead by the middle of the second quarter. But McGrew hit back-to-back shots following a Dustin Rogers bucket and the deficit for the Mustangs was down to four.
The Jackets responded with consecutive layins from Asa Osbourn and Heavner picked off a pass and took it in for a score as lead swelled back up to 11. Denison was denied a double-digit half-time advantage when Adam Gerdes drilled a three-pointer at the buzzer to make it 35-27.
The first quarter was a struggle for both teams to get going. It was more disappointing for the Jackets, since they opened the game on a 9-1 run behind Price and Gaines. But over the final four minutes Denison's only offense came on a pair of free throws from Heavner and McKinney Christian chipped away at the deficit to trail by two, 11-9, at the end of the frame.
Denison also had a 60-48 loss against Greenville. Nate Uber scored 13 points, Gaines added 11 points and Vaughn and Heavner each finished with six points for the Jackets, who are 4-2 in their last six games with both defeats coming against the Lions.