They played hard, and they reflected the effort and personality of their new coach. But in the end the Houston Wildcats were no match for Troy Christian’s “Santa” Tuesday. The ‘big man’ delivered!
Houston – Brad Francis’s Houston Wildcats dropped their fifth game of the season Tuesday night (1-5), but their effort against an impressive Troy Christian team (3-2) was hardly anything to ruin one’s holiday spirit.
TC is a talented, athletic bunch learning in the words of its coach, Ray Zawadzki, to play a different type of game…fast-paced, frantic at times, and willing to take as many ‘threes’ as it takes to win on a given night.
At any rate that’s how Tuesday’s game started, and to the locals’ delight, Houston’s young and inexperienced lineup matched them in effort….and in three-point shooting. Connor Case banged in a couple from behind the arc to give the Eagles early momentum; and the Wildcats’ Howie Ludwig held serve with a pair of his own.
After one stanza the game was virtually even…Troy Christian 22, Houston 20.
TC turned up the pressure in the second quarter, forced the pace and some Houston turnovers. It also forced Francis to do his best Jerry Tarkanian impression on the sideline, towel in hand, mopping his brow as needed. And a funny thing…the harder he coached the harder his kids played.
TC continued to hit threes; Caleb Sluss and Noah Shoemaker continued to match. But for a couple of late turnovers that the Eagles turned into points, the game was still even at the half…Troy Christian 40, Houston 36.
But all good things come to an end, especially if they were a surprise to start with. Houston is not particularly known for three-point shooting, and while they shot 50% for a while to stay even, what they COULD NOT match was the impact of TC’s junior center, James Anderson. A 6’9”, 270 man-child with a soft touch around the rim and a personality to match, Anderson was unstoppable with the ball in his hands, and a force defensively on the other end of the court, as well. He was, on this night…Santa come early!
His 11 first half points turned out to be the real difference in the game, not the three-point shooting…because TC quit making threes in the second half, as well. Anderson, however, got other help in a third quarter that saw TC outscore Houston 21-12. He added 12 more points to finish with a game-high 27…paving the way to a 74-64 win.
“He has to be one of the biggest stories in Division IV basketball in the area,” said Zawadzki after the game. “I mean, there’s just no answer for a guy like that who’s 6’9” and weighs 270 pounds…on both ends of the floor.
“I told people before the season that we’d have a surprise for them this year, and James is the surprise. Last year he was just a piece of the puzzle for us. But he grew five inches over the summer and this year he’s the entire border of our puzzle…and he’s just gonna’ get better.”
To be sure, the soft-spoken Anderson (who’s attended Troy Christian since 4th grade) flashed some repertoire, canning a three-pointer in the first half, great touch around the rim, a modest dunk in the second half, and the stamina to withstand the torrid pace of Troy Christian’s new attack.
“We’re not accustomed to playing this style,” admits Zawadzki, who comes from the school of patience and taking care of the basketball.
“But the kids enjoy it, they enjoy the challenge of competing like tonight, and we’re going to be a lot better in about three weeks.”
They all contributed. Twelve played for TC, and nine of the twelve scored, Ben Schenk joining Anderson in double figures with 10 points as the Eagles finished the game shooting 44%.
The pace may be different, but Anderson made the game, and the outcome, elementary basketball. It’s hard to beat rats…with mice!
“I knew I had the size advantage inside,” he said later with a broad smile. “I just tried to use that against them. I just kept getting the ball…kept getting the ball…and that’s about it.”
His teammates were more than willing to share the load, the basketball, and the path to an impressive win.
“That’s been a trademark of our teams,” added Zawadzki. “If you go back to the ’13 team that went to state, they were great to share the basketball. This group is no different. And a team that’s unselfish is one that usually finds a way to win.”
And while another ultra-competitive, Brad Francis, had to content himself with a simple step forward in the process of rebuilding the winning tradition at Houston, his team showed Tuesday that the glass IS half full.
They played hard. There was no lack of effort. They competed, even while missing an inordinate number of point-blank attempts at the rim, thanks in part to the presence of Anderson.
But to their credit, they rebounded, as many as four offensive boards on one possession where Anderson and company protected the rim. Howie Ludwig finally scored on the possession, two of his team-high 17 points. Teammate Isaiah Beaver joined him in double figures with 10 points.
“Their size wasn’t really the issue,” said Ludwig, a 6’ sophomore guard with the competitive instinct of a pit bull. “We just have to have better help-side defense and get better.”
True, Howie, but Anderson had 27 and the deficit was ten. Shaking his head, Ludwig wasn’t convinced.
And Houston will get better as their competitive personality continues to match the personality of their first-year coach.
“I’ve told them from the start that a team takes on the personality of its coach,” said Francis after the game, drenched from the shared effort and exertion.
“I told the kids we got beat tonight by a pretty good team – a team that shot the ball pretty well and one that’s got a tough matchup in a 6’9” Anderson, and they knew they were in a basketball game until the very end. We did everything we wanted to do except contain them in the third quarter. The third quarter got away from us and sometimes that’s what 6’9” kids do to ya’.”
A good crowd showed up, and they saw an entertaining basketball game. But perhaps best, they saw a pair of teams that are bound to improve, as Zawadzki maintained, over the course of the next month.
Houston will continue to come right after opponents in the Shelby County League. A young group, their basketball instincts and defense will improve; and they won’t have the likes of James Anderson to contend with against Botkins and Jackson Center.
Troy Christian? Well, Ray Zawadzki admits that a different style is fine as long as it makes his team competitive – as long as they can give themselves a chance to win.
But let’s face it. It’s Christmas, right? And apropos that a big man should come to town Tuesday and deliver the goods – not down the chimney, but right down the hoop and through the net.
Zawadzki didn’t hang around after the game, but rather jumped in his car to get home so he could watch his son play for Indiana Wesleyan on television. But he probably made a call back to his assistants.
Make sure ‘Santa’ gets on the bus…for the trip back to Troy.