MIDLOTHIAN — More than a few North Texas news circles touted Midlothian versus Waxahachie as an arena-shaking and city-quaking game-of-the-week with state championship implications.
It didn't disappoint the multitudes of fans packed wall-to-wall in seats and in standing-room-only hoping to see the action.
Despite a 20-point plus first-half deficit, the Panthers stormed back and made the third installment of the county basketball war against rival Waxahachie High School on Tuesday night at MHS Arena one for the ages.
"The first half wasn't our best half of the season. That's where we left our chance and where the game was decided," Panther Head Coach Steve Middleton said about his team's 70-59 regional quarterfinal round loss. "They are some tough, tough kids and too good to get down 23 points at halftime. It's that second quarter spurt that they're known to be deadly in that was the difference and cost us the game."
The loss may have been the third to the Runnin' Indians this season, but it also was the closest and most contested high-stakes game of the three.
Midlothian began the first four minutes of the opening quarter cold and stayed frosty until juniors Evan Marshall and Vincent Lee dented the Indians' interior and perimeter armor with a 3-pointer and an offensive rebound-turned-putback. The duo's momentary barrage gave the Panthers a slim 7-5 lead with just under six minutes in the first quarter.
The Panthers' rally, for the moment, was short-lived.
Waxahachie led a 15-4 run to close the first quarter and open the second after junior Mar'Quaylen Grant scored eight points, senior Xavier Thompson II added a drive and score and junior Jaylen Warren sunk an uncontested corner three.
The Indians took a 44-21 lead after mounting a second run behind the power of a back-to-back steals by Grant and Montre Gipson and a thunderous two-handed slam by Thompson II. The difference between an Indian win and a Panther loss, said Greg Gober, the Runnin' Indians head basketball coach, was an adherence to Waxahachie's excuse-destroying culture.
"They probably don't see what winning tough game after tough game is doing for the community," he said. "They also probably can't imagine how proud I am of them and how many dreams they're making come true for so many people. They're doing it through their hard work, by avoiding the excuses that can cause good teams to lose their way and by playing together as one."
That unity showed most in the first half after Waxahachie used patience to dissect the Panther defense and find open shot attempts. The Runnin' Indians shot 60 percent (3 of 5) from inside the 3-point line and 75 percent (3 of 4) outside of it in the opening eight minutes.
They shot 58 and 60 percent, respectively, during a second quarter they outscored Midlothian 29-10.
A part of the pluck that came from Waxahachie's side of the court came from the play of their undersized starting five. Despite battling 6-foot-8 Vincent Lee, 6-foot-6 Evan Marshall, 6-foot-5 Kaden Archie and 6-foot-5 all-purpose defender Bray Olmstead, the Indians found paths to the lane among the waiting and willing shot blockers and the bottom of the net over outstretched fingers.
Waxahachie's guard duo of Grant (21 pts, 2 stl) and Gipson ( 40 pts, 4 reb, 4 ast, 3 stl) combined for 41 of the Green Machine's 70 points. Junior Larry Wise was a do-it-all factor, scoring 12 points, pulling down six rebounds and handing out five assists.
The remaining three scorers — Thompson II, Warren and junior Tevin Wofford — scored six, six and five points each. Thompson II led the Indians in rebounds with seven and Wofford added two blocks.
"It's what we've done all season. We've learned when it's completely smooth it's probably not right," Gober said. "This team not only accepts adversity, but it also thrives on that factor. We take it seriously. A good team may make some excuses, but great teams make none."
They could have made excuses after Archie, the game's scoring leader with 23 points, went 4-for-4 from the field in the third quarter and almost single-handedly dwindled Waxahachie's lead to single digits.
They could have drummed up a justification after Lee's rebound off a Caleb Jordan miss led to a 3-point play. Or when Archie made good on free throw line chances time after time and after Midlothian outrebounded the Indians 15-11 in the third and fourth quarters.
"We did show a level of toughness and grit to claw ourselves back within eight points," Middleton said. "They were resilient as all get out and that stage we were on tonight was invaluable because it's something that none of these young men experienced before. It was like the state championship. The vast majority of high school kids never get to experience a sold out crowd. You can't buy or rent that type of experience. All you can do is work your tail off to achieve that level of play. We haven't entered into the elite status in basketball in the area but we've definitely have crossed over into a good basketball program within the DFW area."
Midlothian's leading scorers nearly shattered the Runnin' Indians hopes after leading a 15-8 third quarter run powered by Archie (23 pts, 6 rebs, 4 ast), Jordan (14 pts, 4 rebs) and Lee (11 pts, 11 rebs, 1 blk).
Instead of folding, panicking and falling in the first game since the end of 2016, Waxahachie got defensive and forced six of Midlothian's 11 turnovers in the final quarter and kept pace with their Ellis County rival — despite losing the scoring battle in the last 16 minutes of the game.
The Runnin' Indians, which advanced to the regional semifinal round of the playoffs, stand in the pathway of West Mesquite High School. It's a program that's already shown a penchant for upsetting highly-ranked teams.
Waxahachie was seated No. 3 in the state per TABC final rankings.
The Wranglers beat Little Elm High School, the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches' No. 2 boys 5A team and the undefeated District 14-5A No. 1 seed, 82-55 in the area round. During the upset, five different players scored in double figures — including senior guards Damein Buckley (21 pts, 3 stls) and Mike Nweke (20 pts, 10 rebs) and TyWaun Hampton (13 pts, 8 ast).
"We know what they've done and how good of a team they are," Gober said. "This is the regional tournament. There aren't any bad teams in it. We're going to play hard, do what we do and play together. It's all we can do. When we do that, good things happen."
Waxahachie will face West Mesquite in the regional semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Garland's Curtis Caldwell Center, located at 4999 Naaman Forest Boulevard.
Marcus S. Marion can be reached for story idea submissions or concerns at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI.