- Jeff Miller
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HOUSTON -- Practically everyone on the Yates High School (Houston) boys basketball team seems to have a story explaining his personal scar from last year's staggering playoff loss to Wheatley (Houston) in the Class 4A Region III championship game.
That's what happens when a nine-point lead escapes in the final minute of regulation and a trip to the state tournament in Austin goes to your biggest rival at the end of a double-overtime thriller.
The Lions feel like it was the one that got away on a series of poorly timed miscues.
"I turned the ball over when we were up by two," junior guard Joseph Young recalled. "I should have held it. Gotten my free throws. Took the win."
Junior forward Brandon Peters had a sure dunk go off course, and junior guard Marshall Lange missed two free throws with 21.6 seconds left.
"I shoot about a hundred [free throws] a day now," Lange said.
For junior guard Darius Gardner, there was nothing that he could do. He was on the bench, relegated to being a helpless bystander.
"We couldn't call a timeout," Gardner remembered. "If I'd just told my coaches to keep me in "
That's why Wednesday night's playoff rematch between Yates, ranked No. 2 in the state in 4A, and Wheatley, ranked No. 6, had the feel of a state championship game. That's why, even though the game was played at Texas Southern University's 8,100-seat arena, there was still an overflow crowd with people standing behind the last row of seats on three sides of the building and beneath one basket.
That's why the Lions, after knocking the Wildcats down early and keeping them down, posed for a team picture on the court following a convincing 96-79 victory. Yates owned a 10-point lead five minutes in. Coming back from nine points down? The last time that Wheatley was that close was late in first half.
"One miracle was enough," said Young, who led the Lions with 24 points.
Yates improved to 30-1 and is the highest-ranking 4A team alive going into Friday's regional semifinal against Livingston. Wheatley's fans could take solace in knowing the 17-point margin of victory was Yates' second-worst outing of the season, topped only by its only loss, by two points to 5A Elsik (Houston) in late December.
But there are no moral victories in this rivalry. It was obvious Wheatley couldn't catch Yates this time, couldn't solve the Lions' relentless full-court press, and couldn't stop Yates' small, quick lineup from striking from the outside or driving through Wheatley's big men. Many of the purple-clad Wildcats fans got an early start to the exits midway through the fourth quarter. Wheatley, led by senior Aaron-Mike Davis' 28 points, finished the season 32-5.
Greg Wise, 58-4 in two seasons as Yates coach, never made last year's playoff calamity a crusade. He didn't plaster signs all over the locker room reminding the players of the Wheatley meltdown.
"I knew without putting anything up that they were going to be pumped up enough." Wise said. "What happened last year was meant to happen that way. Maybe if that hadn't, we wouldn't have been as focused this year. From the first day of practice, this team has been as focused as any team I've ever had."
Yates paid a physical price for the win, though. Multiple Lions were picked up off the court and helped to the bench during the game. Lange hurt his right leg during the first half. Gardner was poked in the right eye, and he and Peters suffered leg injuries. Teammates carried him to the locker room after the game, his legs wrapped in plastic after suffering cramps. Lange cramped up, too, and joined Peters in the Texas Southern training room half an hour after the game.
There's only one day between the regional quarterfinals and the Friday-Saturday semifinals and finals because statewide standardized testing prohibited playoff games from being played Monday or Tuesday.
The Yates players say they'll forget their scars and will avoid a letdown after getting their revenge against Wheatley.
"The way we're playing now," Young said, "it's going to take us all the way."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at email@example.com.
Houston-area powers Yates and Wheatley battled in last year's Texas 4A Region III title. This year the two faced off again, with Yates getting revenge on Wheatley.