By Travis M. Smith | KBEC Sports
MIDLOTHIAN — For the fourth time in as many years, the Midlothian Panthers are one rivalry win away from a share of the District 14-5A crown.
And, for the fourth consecutive season, it’s the Red Oak Hawks that stand in the Panthers’ path.
The district showdown between No. 1 and 2 is set for 8 p.m. Friday in Midlothian.
In looking ahead for the Panthers, it’s essential to first look back — particularly at their lone district loss.
“We missed layups and missed free throws, and that is what decided the game,” Middleton told KBEC Sports following that 63-62 overtime road loss on Jan. 4. “I give my team credit for coming back, especially being down 18 points at the half and taking it to overtime.”
Middleton noted then that it was the first game for the Panthers at full strength since the season tipped off. Junior guard Kelton Williams led the team with 16 points and 7 rebounds. Calix Hampton (11 points), Rorik Harrison (9) and Nathan Shepard (8) also contributed in the scoring department.
Kirk Queensborough poured in a game-high 22 points to lead Red Oak to the win. Jace Wyatt recorded an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double and Devin Boone added 12 points to the effort.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries and sickness, and those aren’t excuses because Red Oak is really good,” Middleton explained. “We had just not been winning close games.”
The keyword to that final Middleton quote is “had.”
Middleton explained that the recipe for future Panther successes was simple. “We need to work on mental toughness and being a team. And we have to win the close ones. That’s all.”
Part of that, the mental side, comes through persevering through tough battles on the court.
Midlothian has done that recently, reeling off a five-game district winning streak against Corsicana, Waco University, Cleburne, Joshua and Ennis. Four of those victories were by 13 points or more, while the 49-43 Joshua win proved the team more than capable of winning a tight district game.
The most recent victory was a 55-53 road romping of Ennis on Tuesday.
Shepard scored a season-high 30 points and Williams added 20 in the win.
Williams, a 6-foot junior guard, currently leads the Panthers in points (15.8), rebounds (5.0) and steals (2.5) per game.
Shepard averages 11.9 points and 3.8 boards a night, while Ovie Agbigbe is good for 7.8 points and 4.6 rebounds.
The trio of Williams, Shepard and Agbigbe are juniors, too, meaning the chemistry built now will almost certainly carry over to even grander achievements next season.
For those new to the Panther program, Middleton knows a thing about building a cohesive unit out of three young scorers. We are just four seasons removed from when Caleb Jordan, Kaden Archie and Evan Marshall led a group of Panthers to San Antonio and the 5A state semifinals.
And that brings us to the second half of Middleton’s formula, which is pretty straightforward — the Panthers simply needed time on the court together, especially at full strength.
A healthy, focused and gelled Midlothian squad is set to take the court Friday night against No. 20 Red Oak.
The Panthers move into a share of first place with a victory. A loss paves the way for an outright district title for Red Oak.
Tipoff is at 8 p.m. inside the arena on the campus of Midlothian High.
All photos by Fred Phipps/KBEC Sports
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith