The Yellow Jackets have come so far — to the point that at this juncture in the season they have a winning record for the first time in nearly a decade. They have surpassed last season’s total for victories and played opponents who cruised past them last season tougher this time around.
For all the strides the Jackets have made, there is still more for them to accomplish. A second straight postseason appearance will likely remain possible until the final week of the season. But in the District 10-5A opener, the Princeton Panthers showed Denison has a ways to go if the Jackets are going to contend at a higher level than just getting into the playoffs.
Tre McGrue scored 13 of his 23 points in the second quarter — when Princeton took the lead for good — in a 58-44 win over the Jackets at Denison.
“That second quarter has been bad for us all year,” Yellow Jacket head coach Dale Rhodes said. “They had a guy who’s pretty good.”
McGrue was the only Panther in double figures while Vernoris Hickerson added nine points, Antwone Owens and Isaiah Sadler chipped in seven points and Josiah Crockett totaled six points for Princeton (15-5, 1-0).
Tarrence Gaines and Nate Uber each scored 11 points, Jadarian Price added nine points and Zaelin Wimbish chipped in five points for Denison (11-11, 0-1), which has a big week ahead with a trip to Wylie East on Tuesday night before hosting Sherman on Friday — the two teams it finished ahead of in the standings to break an eight-year playoff drought last spring.
The Jackets got off to a good start in this one but after the encouraging first quarter were playing from behind and never really threatened to pull off the comeback.
Much of that came in the form of shooting woes and relying too much on three-pointers at times. While the Jackets did make seven shots from deep, they made just nine other baskets in the game.
“Sometimes we look for it too much,” Rhodes said. “If it comes to you in the flow, I’m all for it. Put it up.”
Three times in the fourth quarter Denison made it a three-possession game, starting with Gaines’ basket to open the frame. Princeton didn’t fully put the Jackets away before the final minutes but the Panthers never really provided an opening either.
Uber had a three-pointer from the left wing that made it 44-34 in the middle of the fourth and 17 seconds later Hickerson matched him. Price scored and then found Trey Rhodes underneath on a drive and it was back to a nine-point game with 2:45 remaining.
Torijuan Burns scored at the other end but then came a break for Denison. Uber made a three at the top of the key and was fouled. When he converted the four-point play, the Jackets were down seven with a little under two and a half minutes left and the closest they had been since late in the second quarter.
As quickly as Denison was a stop away from trimming the deficit even more, a technical foul after a foul had been called sent McGrue to the line and he made all four shots, pumping Princeton’s lead back to 11. It was the beginning of a 9-2 run to end the game and start Denison’s district schedule on a sour note.
From the start of the second quarter, Denison made just three shots for the next 13 minutes. The struggles offensively turned a five-point advantage into a 13-point deficit before Price’s putback with 3:10 remaining in the third quarter.
“We’ve got to play better defense when we’re not making shots,” Rhodes said. “Until our run starts, we’ve got to focus on our defense even more.”
A three-pointer by Gaines pulled the Jackets within single digits but Sadler responded from beyond the arc and Princeton was up 11 going to the fourth quarter.
It took until the final three minutes of the second quarter for Princeton to gain a sizable lead. Denison was still in front on a Gaines free throw with 5:23 remaining in the half and the score was tied twice, the last at 18 on a layup from Caleb Heavner with 2:46 to go until half-time.
The Panthers then went on a 9-0 run that was halted by a Heavner turnaround along the left baseline with just under a minute left but Hickerson drilled a three-pointer at the buzzer and Princeton carried a 30-20 lead into the locker room.
After Princeton took an 8-5 lead late in the first quarter, Gaines and Price had three-pointers on back-to-back possessions and then Gaines scored on a drive to give Denison a 13-8 advantage following the opening eight minutes.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to sustain it,” Rhodes said. “We jumped on them and couldn’t keep it going.”