MIDLOTHIAN — Midlothian High School won its third consecutive game on Friday at MHS Arena, beating the Hawks 59-42 despite double-figure performances by Cameron Peay and Frank Williams.
Effects of the win — ink on pages of the city's sports' history book — on the Midlothian's community, however, may have been more important.
"I was talking to AD (Steve) Keasler the other day and he impressed upon me something that I took for granted. I've been blessed in basketball to do a lot of winning at the high school and college level. he told me, 'You don't realize how much going back to the playoffs means for the people of Midlothian and the pride the community has in the sports teams here,'" Panther Head Coach Steve Middleton said. "Sometimes you have to take a look beyond yourself. I always think I'm supposed to make the playoffs. That's my mentality. For these kids and the community, though, making it to the playoffs is a pretty big deal."
With the home win against their Ellis County rival, the Panthers earned their first postseason bid in seven years — since former Head Coach Glenn Hartson and Midlothian finished 20-12 and 11-3 in District 16-4A and lost 56-51 to Red Oak in the area round of the UIL playoffs.
"The reaction of the community has been a little bit overwhelming for me, personally, because I've been in MISD since third grade and never been a part of something like this before," junior Panther guard Kaden Archie added. "The city's ready and it's only the beginning on how crazy this may get. Coach (Middleton) told us at the start of the season, 'if your goal is to make the playoffs and be satisfied, this probably isn't the right sport for you.' We took that to heart. We were in it at one point and ranked No. 6 in the state and now we're unranked, so we all have a chip on our shoulder. That's what going to keep propelling us forward toward making more history in the city of Midlothian."
Grounding a scrappy Red Oak team searching for both its first district win and a role in booting their Ellis County rival out of the UIL 5A playoff scene would take grit, composure and lessons from each of the 30 previous games. The (21-9, 7-6) Panthers used 21 points from junior Vince Lee, 15 points from Archie and 14 from junior Evan Marshall to outscore the Hawks in every quarter except the third.
During that third quarter, eight-minute stretch, however, Red Oak not only may have shown how dangerous it can be when it's clicking on all cylinders, but also that it can play the role of playoff spoiler.
Behind three baskets from both Peay (18 pts) and Williams (10 pts), a 2-pointer from Roston White and a deep 3-pointer from Emerson Wallace, Red Oak led a 19-9 third-quarter run and dwindled Midlothian's lead to a mere five points going into the final quarter.
Their statistics and field goal percentages, too, indicated a much closer game than the 17-point difference on the scoreboard at the final buzzer. The Hawks shot 11-for-24 (46 percent) on 2-point field goals and hit 3-point shots via Peay, Wallace and Williams' hot hands.
Again, the Panthers controlled their playoff destiny. A loss to Red Oak would put them on the treacherous road to Tiger Coliseum to secure a postseason berth and a win would ensure a scratch of the seven-year itch.
Then the Hawks' offense — which had been as potent as it had been all season — stalled in the final eight minutes of the game.
The fourth, though, is where the Panthers — and specifically Lee — shined. Almost every player one the roster scored at least one point during the fourth quarter rally.
"In my experience on my old team, I had found that a championship level team has discipline, works hard, and leaves everything on the court every game," Lee said.
He transferred from Virginia's Paul VI Catholic High School and played on the nationally ranked and Virginia Independent Schools Division I boys state champion Paul VI Panthers.
"I think we found that against Lancaster and were reminded against Red Oak," Lee continued. "I believe talent makes the team special if the all the members of the team work hard. I think our team can be special if do the same."
The first year Midlothian Panther, which finished with six rebounds and a block, accounted 12 of his team's 21 final points. Marshall, the team's leader in rebounds, sunk a 3-pointer in the third quarter but was held scoreless for the majority of the second half.
A month before, the playoff gods had seemingly left Midlothian for dead after back-to-back-to-back-to-back losses to Waxahachie and Mansfield Lake Ridge, Summit and Timberview High Schools and a plummet to the bottom of District 10-5A.
The Panthers had other plans for their postseason future, though.
Behind a two-point win over formerly state-ranked and defending 5A champion Lancaster High School, Midlothian rallied and stacked five wins in seven games — coming back from the basketball dead and nearly becoming the integral piece that helped oust the reigning basketball giant Flying Tigers from the playoff picture.
"We never stopped believing in each other. While I think earlier in the year, people believed in us, when we went on that four-game drought people stopped," junior guard Caleb Jordan, who scored two points and added three assists and one steal. "I never lost hope for me and my team I knew we were capable of doing big things and making history we just had to get everyone who stopped back on board and start believing in us again. It's amazing to be in the playoffs because we've never have been in it. For the first time, we beat the odds and that is amazing."
Midlothian will face Lancaster High School at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Tiger Coliseum during its district finale. With a win, the Panthers would claim third place in the district and force the reigning 5A champion to accept the fourth and final playoff seed.
"It was an absolute war last time," Middleton said. "It's going to set the stage for us moving forward. They're going to be after us and it's going to be a playoff environment — which is invaluable to us. Rather than playing a team that's not playing for anything we get Lancaster and an opportunity to sweep the defending state champs. With their tradition and expectation for winning, beating a team like that twice in a season would mean a lot for the school and program."
The (6-22, 0-13) Hawks seek their first district win against Mansfield Legacy High School, the District 10-5A No. 7 team, at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Red Oak Competition Gymnasium.