WAXAHACHIE — Waxahachie was tested only once through 12 district games and needed a statement game — a challenge — to propel it into and through the UIL postseason.
Look no further than the defending 5A champion Lancaster Flying Tigers.
Though it took all 32 minutes of high school basketball to edge Lancaster High School 60-59 Friday at George W. Solis Gymnasium, the win offered Waxahachie added value.
Preparation for a rough-and-tumble postseason road to a state title game.
"At the end, I was doing whatever I could to help us win even though I had a bad start," junior forward Larry Wise said. "Xavier (Thompson II) hit some big free throws down the stretch and he had some real heart. He really made us go tonight. [Beating Lancaster] shows how far we've come from last season. They beat us twice last season, but this shows how we can handle adversity. It's just one more step closer to what we're trying to do — bring a state title back to Waxahachie."
Wise and fellow juniors Mar'Quaylen Grant and Jaylen Warren, which struggled during the onset of the matchup but hit key baskets in the third and fourth quarters, each scored under their season averages of nine or more points per game. Grant, who posted one rebound and a steal, scored eight points and Warren, who sank two 3-pointers, scored eight points.
Wise added six points and three rebounds as well as three late-game free throws that helped Waxahachie first take break a fourth quarter deadlock then take a new lead.
While the trio of scorers was held in check by Lancaster's athleticism, there was a pair of Runnin' Indians it couldn't contain.
And fortunately for Waxahachie, Thompson II and Montre Gipson brought their A-games.
Gipson, a junior Runnin' Indians' guard led Waxahachie with 24 points on 66 (10-for-15) percent field goal shooting, making six of his nine 2-point attempts and four of his six attempts from the 3-point line. He also pulled down eight rebounds and dished five assists with no turnovers.
Thompson II, one of the team's only seniors, scored 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and swatted away a game- and season-high four shots. One of those blocks came on T.J. Starks' last-ditch fall-away shot with 18 seconds left in the budding rivalry.
Starks, surrounded by Gipson, Grant and Thompson, slid to his left to avoid the pressure, reared back and released a fadeaway that ran straight into the outstretched hand of Waxahachie's current shot-block king.
"I knew he was going to get the ball, but we were just determined to get a stop," Thompson said. "They way we played and won that game shows that we are mentally tough enough to win the close games. It's almost a 50-50 thing. You have to be mentally tough and physically talented to be successful. It's not just one side or the other. As long as we have the mental part of the game down, we'll be fine."
Thompson has 20 blocks this season and is averaging 1.4 rebounds per game.
Ironically enough, the difference between Gipson's total and Lancaster guard Starks' (26 pts) was nearly the same variation in the final score that stretched Waxahachie's win streak to 12 games and dropped Lancaster to fourth place in District 10-5A.
Starks also pulled down five of Lancaster's 33 rebounds. Waxahachie also had to battle the surge of Cam Bluitt, the Flying Tigers' second-leading scorer with 18 points and six rebounds.
Despite the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches No. 3 Runnin Indians versus the unranked but defending 5A champion Flying Tigers billing, Lancaster was close to toppling the green giant. A pair of Starks fourth quarter free throws nearly clinched a win with eight seconds left in the game.
And while the Waxahachie put up points early in the game, — outscoring its opponent in the first and third quarters — Lancaster rallied late with a 24-point fourth.
It wasn't the offense that sealed the game for an Indians' team one win away from becoming the first in 18 years to finish its district undefeated, though. It was the singular aspect Head Coach Greg Gober preached since the season began — defense.
"There's a lot of lessons to learn in every game you play and you've got to make plays in adverse situations," he said, noting his boys' composure during a pressurized fourth quarter. "This game and its ending were evidence to that. Lancaster wasn't going to quit and we weren't either. Their composure, though, was probably the key factor. If you can't fight through adversity, you'll never be a champion. If you look at it, we made a big shot in almost every quarter, finished it the right way, making shots when we needed to make shots."
The Runnin' Indians will close their district schedule against University of Houston basketball commit Mike Adewunmi and Mansfield Lake Ridge at 8 p.m. Tuesday at MLRHS Gymnasium. The Eagles were eliminated from playoff contention after Friday's 67-39 loss to Mansfield Timberview High School.
Mansfield Lake Ridge, however, has much to play for despite having no postseason future. It's Eagles can become only the sixth team this season, second 5A program and first district opponent to beat Waxahachie.