By CLINT FOSTER
LAKE WORTH – Two weeks ago, the Mineral Wells Rams were poised to take second place in District 6-3A. All they would need was a win against rival Springtown – a team the Rams beat 83-70 in their first meeting.
But the Rams fell to the Porcupines that night, triggering a three-game losing streak that would set up a must-win game in hostile Lake Worth for MWHS to capture third place in district.
On Wednesday night, when they needed to the most, the Rams stepped up.
Mineral Wells (15-11) trounced the Lake Worth Bullfrogs (10-17), 73-51, in their season finale to get off the schneid and secure third place in district before the Class 3A Region I playoffs.
Although the Rams jumped out to an early 14-1 lead, the first half was a back-and-forth battle with four lead changes before both teams went into the locker room at halftime with the score knotted up at 29 apiece.
“In the first half, to be honest, I was a little nervous,” Rams head coach Aaron Papas said. “We weren’t scoring at the pace that we normally do.”
It wasn’t until the second half that the Rams exerted their will and took control. Mineral Wells came out in a 1-3-1 defense – as suggested by assistant coach Tommy Fincher – and the Bullfrogs had no answer. Taking advantage of turnovers, the Rams rode runs to leads as big as 18 points before winning the game by a margin of 24.
“(Fincher) gets all the credit for the defensive strategy in that one,” Papas said. “We jumped into that 1-3-1 full court, back to half court and trapped, got steals and got out and ran.
“That sped us up and we started to score points like we’re accustomed to. It was defense tonight that got our offense going.”
The Rams’ win was also highlighted by multiple impressive individual efforts. Junior Byron Clardy led the Rams in scoring with 18 points to go along with five rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“I was just seeing a lot of open spaces,” he said. “My teammates were getting open pretty well. We were just running the offense right and our defense really stepped up tonight.”
Few shone brighter than junior Juvaree Sutton who was one rebound away from a double-double with 16 points, nine boards and two steals. He said Papas’ halftime speech was what drove him to perform at such a high level in the second half.
“I was feeling hyped,” Sutton said. “Coach just told us to get after it and that’s what I did.”
Also with solid nights were juniors Rascellis Williams and Nick Wendt. Williams cut through the Bullfrogs’ defense like a hot knife through butter, posting 13 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Wendt found his stroke from the perimeter – after going 0-for-7 in his previous game – and hit three 3-pointers and a free throw for a total of 10 points.
It seemed for just about everyone in red and black, that night was about getting a serious monkey off their collective backs. The sense of relief was palpable.
“It felt really good,” Sutton said of the win. “It was like a stress reliever. Just a bunch of pressure off of all of our backs as a team.”
“It feels really good going into the playoffs with a ‘W,’” Clardy said. “I don’t know what it would have felt like going into the playoffs with a fourth (straight) loss.”
“It’s always good to win over here,” Papas said. “This is a tough place to play. We’ve just got to make the most of our situation, keep getting better and move forward.
“It doesn’t matter who we play (in the playoffs), we’ve just got to be ready.”
Like the Lady Rams, the Rams will draw Wichita Falls Hirschi in the first round of the playoffs.
The game is set for 6 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 18, at Bridgeport High School.
Papas said the key for the Rams will keeping their intensity and focus up. His players echoed the sentiment.
“We’ve just got to play good defense,” Clardy said. “They’re a fast team, very athletic, and we’ve just got to step it up.”