Mineral Wells Index
By CLINT FOSTER
ALEDO – After powering through the first two rounds of the postseason with wins by five and two points, the Millsap Bulldogs' thrilling run through the Region II-2A playoffs came to an abrupt end Monday night.
Droves of Bulldog faithful clad in maroon and novelty bow ties packed Aledo's Bearcat Gymnasium, easily outnumbering the fans of the storied Ponder Lions. But loud as they barked, Millsap's fans could not lift their boys past the regional quarterfinals as the Bulldogs fell to the Lions, 65-43.
With the win, the four-time state champion Lions will advance to the regional semifinals to face the winner of Lone Oak and New Boston, while the Bulldogs are left to reflect on the accomplishments of this year and look to continue to build next year.
Millsap's bow-tie-sporting head coach, Josh Jones, said he could not have been more proud of his team after the game.
"You look at a group of young men that have come from three wins two years ago and six wins last year to being in the regional quarterfinals; that's a huge testament to them and what they've been willing to sacrifice to accomplish," said Jones, whose fashion sense and coaching has inspired a town full of bow-tie-garbed fans.
"Ponder is a fantastic team. If there's a better 2A team in the state of Texas, I'd like to see who they are. They executed. We got a little hurried offensively in the first half and the third quarter and just weren't able to do the things we wanted to do in order to be successful."
Millsap struggled to find an answer to Ponder's aggressive press defense that forced turnovers and propelled the Lions to a 13-0 lead to start the game. While the Bulldogs struggled to get their shots to fall, Ponder was lethal from three-point range and used a 13-1 run to build a 34-13 halftime lead. Try as they might, Millsap could not claw back within striking distance.
Junior forward Dalyn Clanin was the catalyst for the Bulldogs' offense early on, but could not take full advantage of a wealth of opportunities from the free throw line. He finished with 10 points to go along with seven rebounds – tied for the team lead – three steals and two assists.
Guard Nich Channer came on strong near the game's end, scoring five of his seven points in the fourth quarter. The 5-foot-10 senior was a perfect 3-for-3 from the charity stripe and snagged a rebound and an assist to fill out his stat line.
But no star shone brighter than senior captain Jaxon Martin. The 6-foot-1 guard scored a team-leading 16 points – most of which came in the second half – and excelled at finding the free throw line, where he sunk 8-of-9. He added three steals, two rebounds and an assist.
"He's done a great job all year long," Jones said of Martin. "The 'C' on his chest means something dramatic to me. That's a captain's badge that he's earned. He led us all year long. He's the best player I had on the team this year and he did what great players do and led his team today."
With the loss now in the books, Millsap will turn its attention to continued improvement for next season. The Bulldogs lose some key seniors, including Martin, Channer and 6-foot-6 post Gianluca Adas, but also return many vital pieces, including junior starters Clanin, Michael Rogers and Aaron Peninger and other contributors.
But with returning players also comes stiff competition in Millsap's new home in District 11-3A next season, which features the likes of basketball powers Brock, Glen Rose, Hillsboro and Peaster, among others.
Ultimately, Jones said his goal is for his program to mirror that of the team that just ended Millsap's 2013-14 campaign.
"We've got to get on the level of the Ponders," he said. "In our (new) district, it doesn't get any easier. There are great teams. So, we've got to have commitment to continue to work as hard as we did this year to get that much better. Just getting (to the regional quarterfinals) is not good enough. I'm proud of the guys for getting here, but we want to get further than this."
PHS 13 21 13 18 – 65
MHS 5 8 10 20 – 43
Millsap Top Performers:
PTS: Jaxon Martin 16
REB: Gianluca Adas, Dalyn Clanin 7
AST: Clanin 2
Millsap Scoring – Martin 16, Clanin 10, Nich Channer 7, Michael Rogers 5, Aaron Peninger 5.