DESOTO — For the first time in seven years, Midlothian High School is going to the UIL boys' basketball regional quarterfinals.
And into a historic meeting with an Ellis County rival.
The Panthers' area round title claim after Friday night's 73-46 victory against Dallas Conrad High School at DeSoto High School's Chris Dyer Gymnasium, though, was more about balance than dominance.
"We had focus and defensive intensity, but more than anything we played together," Panther Head Coach Steve Middleton said. "We had our four leading scorers hit double figures and Evan Marshall was right outside of that. We also had a season-best 20 team assists. When those four kids — Evan, Caleb (Jordan), Kaden (Archie) and Vince (Lee) play well, special things happen."
The unified movement in one direction wasn't only refreshing to Midlothian's well-dressed sideline leader. It was a correction to a frustratingly inconsistent factor of the 2016-17 season. With juniors Kaden Archie and Caleb Jordan as its primary ballhandlers and Vincent Lee and Evan Marshall as its frontcourt forces, the Panther team scored in bunches.
Point production from both the back and frontcourt, however, was erratic at times. The imbalance Middleton and his boys struggled with was evidenced in losses to Arlington Bowie and Mansfield Lake Ridge and Timberview High Schools.
The lack of stability not only didn't show up against Dallas Conrad, a team that boasted a bevy of outside jump shooters and dribble drive penetrators despite entering the postseason as an unranked entity. It also may have marked the turning of a page or a flipping of a switch for a young Panther team adjusting on the fly and possibly underrated by the highest level of state pollers.
"It meant a lot to come into that game and handle business because on any given day a team can upset you," Jordan said about the win. "It's the playoffs and everyone is playing for something. Some are playing for relevance and others are seeing how far they can go, but everyone is playing for a state title. We are playing basketball for something bigger than us — not just for our team but also for our city. We approached the game in 'kill mode' and were determined to not take them for granted and played them like we would play any other team."
While the offensive execution was improved, Middleton said his defense and senior Tyler Tobey were major keys to his team winning back-to-back games after finishing their district schedule 7-7 after a loss to Lancaster High School.
"He may be the unsung hero of our basketball team, to be honest," Middleton said about Tobey's season contributions. "He plays whatever role Coach Middleton needs him to play. If I want him to start, he starts. If I need him to guard [Lancaster point guard] TJ Starks, he's in his face. He doesn't hunt for shots, he leads the team in charges, does all the dirty work and probably never gets a moment's notice for the little things he does to make us successful. He understands and knows his role, which is as important as any statistic a player can get accolades for."
Despite scoring 13 points in the first quarter, Midlothian's defense stifled Dallas Conrad to quarter totals of seven, 15 and 12 while the offense scored 55 points in the final 24 minutes. Though Archie's 20-point, six-assist and three-steal effort helped lead the charge, he wasn't the only Panther to leap into the scoring fray.
Midlothian had seven other players outside Archie — Jordan (16 pts, 4 ast, 5 stl) and Lee (13 pts, 3 reb, 1 blk) — score at least one point. Marshall, who scored nine points on 3 of 5 shooting — all 3-pointers — from the field, nearly missed becoming a fourth member of the double-digit club.
Archie said a discovery of balance highlighted by shots by Jordan and Marshall that open lanes for Lee in the post and kick-out passes took trust. He noted it's the same trust in each other and each athlete's abilities and knowledge of their role that helped them blow out Dallas Conrad and will help them fell the green giant of Waxahachie.
It's almost fitting the locale of the game will be based on the trust of the heads-or-tails nature of a coin flip. Most, if not a large majority of high school playoff games are played at neutral sites halfway between two competing schools. Rarely do regional competitors come from the same district, much less county.
The Panthers and Runnin' Indians will buck trends and play one of the most important games of the season between Ellis County's boundaries. For Midlothian, regardless of whether they play in the friendly confines of MHS Arena or Waxahachie's George W. Solis Gymnasium, the days of fear and thunder are over.
"I won't say they won't be nervous but they won't play scared," Middleton said. "There were times in my two years here when we played DeSoto or Cedar Hill the first time they were scared. You can't fix being scared. This environment that's going to exist Tuesday night it's going to be a first for our guys. It's probably going to be a sellout and a war. All this is new territory. Midlothian basketball, too, is kind of moving into uncharted territory. It's been a while since a sports team in Midlothian went deep into the playoffs. We reached [the basketball regional quarterfinals] in 2010, but we weren't in the same district and not a part of DFW basketball."
And though the Dallas consortium rarely comes to Ellis for basketball outside Lancaster, Mansfield, Midlothian, Red Oak or Waxahachie pairings, it may have to make an exception for a game that has all the makings of high school Game of the Week.
"That's something we're striving for — not just to win games but to be considered a force in the area," Middleton continued. "We have a chance to be something very special and this game could really elevate us as a program. It's a signature and rivalry game for us that covers a smorgasbord of emotion and meaning."
Midlothian and Waxahachie will play their third and final game of the season against each other at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at MHS Arena.
Marcus S. Marion can be reached for story idea submissions or concerns at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI