BY AARON PATTERSON
By now, Danville boys basketball coach Ted Houpt feels as though he is experiencing a real life version of Groundhog Day.
The same cast of characters on his Vikings squad give him outstanding effort game after game, and have come oh, so close to getting over the hump. But it just doesn’t happen.
Houpt knows better than to complain about the skill level of his players, or question their will to win. That would be a waste of time. He realizes the talent, and knows the desire is there. Despite a losing record, he continues to have a full roster of players arrive at practice determined to get better. But that doesn’t mean the Vikings don’t have reason to be discouraged.
Six times this season, Danville has lost a game either in overtime, or by four points or less. The latest was on Friday in a heartbreaker on its home court that saw a comeback against the Decatur MacArthur Generals end in a 64-61 loss.
“It’s hard,” Danville junior center Denzel Smith said. “Every game we go through we play so hard. Every game, it doesn’t ever go our way. It never goes our way. We play so hard. We’re just playing our hearts out.
“I just want to play one game without worrying about (finishing),” he added. “I want to get my guys on the bench (in the game) because they play so hard in practice. I want to get them off the bench and have fun. Just sit on the bench and cheer for my team.”
With three players out of the lineup, including frequent starters Marcus Merriweather and Daniel Carter, Houpt wasn’t sure what to expect against a MacArthur team that had just defeated the Vikings by nine on January 4.
But if he has learned one thing about his team, it’s that regardless of the circumstance, it wouldn’t give up. Danville trailed 32-25 at halftime, but outscored the Generals 36-32 in the second half.
MacArthur went on a 10-3 run and led 44-34 with one minute, 52 seconds remaining in the third quarter. That’s when Danville kicked into another gear and forced MacArthur into six turnovers in the final quarter, and used a 14-5 run to take its first lead since going up 7-4 2:23 into the game.
“Coach told us we weren’t playing as a team,” Smith said. “We were trying to get our own individual buckets in the first half. We decided to come out in the second half and play hard as a team. Our shots came as a team — playing as a team, screening as a team, doing everything as a team. Once we do that as a team, everything falls into place.”
Things were beginning to fall into place, especially for Smith who scored 15 of his game-high 29 points in the second half. And perhaps equally as important was a shot by Devyn McGuire who scored his only points of the game on three with 32 seconds left in the game. The basket pulled the Vikings to within 62-61. And after a missed basket by the Generals, Danville had one more opportunity, but Smith’s jumper with three seconds to go bounced off the rim and into the hands of MacArthur’s Marcus Bartley.
“The guys dug down and fought back and put themselves in a position,” Houpt said. “You’ve got your best player taking a shot that he’s comfortable with for the game. You just have to live with that.
“The last two possessions we had were great. We got Devyn a three-pointer that we knew he could hit. He practices hours and hours on that shot, and he hit it when it counted. And Denzel had a great game and the ball just rolled out. I think everyone on the team can live with that shot. If we had that game again and we’re down by one and you tell me we can have Denzel take a 12-foot, turnaround jumper, I’ll take it every time, and he’ll make it more times.”
After missing his first three shots of the game, Smith made six of his next seven, scoring 12 of the team’s 14 points in the second period. In addition to his 29 points, he finished with 12 rebounds, two assists, and one block. Jarhed Watson scored eight and had four rebounds, Kylen Butler scored seven, had three assists and three steals, and Steven Williams and Te’Von Hutcherson each finished with five.
Danville (4-18 overall, 3-11 in the Big 12 Conference) has three games remaining on the regular season schedule including a home game on Friday against Bloomington. Despite the string of unlucky bounces this season, the Vikings are still determined to finish the season strong.
“You have a choice to be hopeful and push forward, or you can feel sorry for yourself and say it’s not meant to be,” Houpt said. “That’s not how we’re going to do it. We’re going to keep pushing, and that’s why I was so happy in the second half when it looked like we could have thrown in the towel, and we didn’t.
“It’s not easy. It’s not easy for kids, and for grown-ups, to keep positive when you can’t get over the hump. They keep doing it. They keep trying. It’s not going to be a pretty record, but there’s a lot to be said for what the kids have done.”