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Houston's Wheatley thrives under pressure

2/5/2009

HOUSTON -- To call fans of the boys' basketball team at Wheatley (Houston) enthusiastic might be selling them short.

They're demanding. And engaged. They're often not only willing to cheer on the Class 4A power but also ready to offer second-year Wildcats coach Willie Patrick immediate feedback and input.

"Why are you calling another timeout?"

"Put Charles in!"

Martin Vaughn, Wheatley Class of '85, makes it to most games no matter where the Wildcats play. Dressed in a bright purple Wheatley sweatshirt and seated at midcourt Saturday afternoon, he acknowledged that many of the fans seated around him can be demanding.

"We have a lot of coaches in the stands … and they aren't afraid to express it," he said with a laugh. "You have to realize, this is about a community. Basketball has been what brings us together. Everybody grew up at the park playing basketball."

Patrick smiled and shrugged when asked whether coaching Wheatley is a pressure-packed job.

"I'm from the Fifth Ward," he said, referring to the school's neighborhood just east of downtown. "I'm used to being around Wheatley. They want to win. That's what I want."

Wheatley's place in Texas basketball history is unique. When the school moved in 1967 from the all-black Prairie View Interscholastic League into the newly integrated University Interscholastic League, the Wildcats immediately made their presence known. They won three straight state championships and added two more in the next eight seasons.

Four of those titles came under coach Jackie Carr, whose 26 seasons at Wheatley in two stints through the 2001-02 season resulted in 11 district titles and seven trips to the state tournament. His first three teams finished a combined 109-3. When he mentioned his 1973 champions might be able to win the NCAA's Southwest Conference, no one rushed to argue.

The Wildcats were relatively down when Patrick arrived in 2007, having finished second in their district and losing in the second round of the playoffs by 26 points. Patrick led St. Pius X (Houston) to the '07 state championship in the largest classification of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools.

Patrick's first season at Wheatley resulted in a trip to Austin, thanks to a miracle finish in the Region III final against Yates (Houston), the top-ranked 4A team in Texas and Wheatley's biggest rival. The Wildcats scored the last nine points in the final minute of the fourth quarter to force overtime and won in double overtime. Wheatley lost its state semifinal to Southwest (Fort Worth) 95-89 to finish 29-6.

"To win that game over Yates should have given Coach Patrick the credibility that he deserved," Vaughn said.

This season's Wildcats are 26-4 after losing last season's district MVP, DeShawn Garrett, and are ranked seventh among state 4A teams in this week's poll of the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches. But they lost two of their first five district games, to Jones (Houston) and Booker T. Washington (Houston), and in each case let an early lead slip away.

Debate over Patrick's performance raged on Internet message boards such as the one on texasroundball.com. The Wildcats went into Saturday afternoon's rematch against Jones facing virtual elimination in the district race, not the stuff of championship seasons.

The Wildcats again let an early advantage slip away -- 15 points early in the third quarter -- but rallied in overtime to edge the Jones Falcons 82-80. Only after Wheatley shooting guard Mike Davis sank two free throws for the final points of the game with 3.83 seconds left in overtime did some Wildcats fans break into a chant of, "Wheatley! Wheatley! Wheatley!"

The unsung play of the day occurred in the closing seconds of regulation with the score tied when Wheatley junior guard Bobby Haskett nearly committed an over-and-back violation. He had the composure to call a timeout while in midair, about to fall across the midcourt line.

"It just came to me," Haskett said.

"Our type of ballgame is running and gunning," Patrick said afterward, "but we've got to be smart and alert with the basketball."

Most of the gunning this season has come from Davis, a 6-foot-3 senior who transferred from St. Pius X in the summer but hadn't played for Patrick there. Davis signed in the fall with Texas Tech before playing his first game for the Wildcats. He averages 23.9 points per game and is Wheatley's only double-figure scorer.

"That loss to them kind of sucked everything out of us," Davis said of Jones' win on Jan. 6. "We've been regrouping these last couple of games."

Saturday's win came with Carr, a member of the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor, seated at the far end of Wheatley's bench. Dressed in khakis, a windbreaker and a fishing hat, he looked like someone waiting for the rest of his foursome to show. He didn't join in huddles and only occasionally offered words to players who wandered within earshot.

Patrick said of Carr, "He's like a father to me."

Carr, 79, said he attends some games as well as some practices at Patrick's asking. He offers help at practice only when asked. He said he doesn't think his presence at practice or on the bench puts more pressure on Patrick.

"If he did, all he'd have to do is tell me to move," Carr said.

Following Wednesday night's 50-point win over Scarborough (Houston), Wheatley sits one game behind Jones in the district standings with four games to play. It could receive help from Washington, but Wheatley itself faces the task of gaining a split with Washington next week after losing the first time around 105-104 in overtime.

Wheatley appears in good shape to be one of the four district qualifiers for the playoffs. But the Wildcats will need more consistent inside offensive play from their two big seniors, 6-10 Henry Buckley and 6-9 Josef Brown (playing next year for Dartmouth), if they hope to return to Austin. Good news for Wildcats fans is that injured senior forward Robert Stokes should return to action soon.

Carr said the team is playing "fair," but "they have as good a chance of anyone [among the 4A teams in Houston] of getting to the state tournament."

Whatever happens, Patrick shouldn't have to wait long to learn how the good people of the Fifth Ward feel.

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.