The last time the Houston Hilltoppers had a better start, future NBA player Terry Catledge was a senior in 1981.
During the 1980-81 season, Houston was 14-0 after the Christmas break. This season, the Hilltoppers were 15-2.
Both times they started the new year with a game against Tupelo. In 1981, the Golden Wave ended the Hilltoppers’ streak. Tuesday, the Hilltoppers pulled out a last-second 91-86 win and emerged as the No. 3 team in the Daily Journal boys basketball poll. Only No. 2 Myrtle (19-1) has won more games.
One big difference between the two Houston teams, besides 15 years: there is no star on this year’s squad.
“One of the strong points of this team is that we are balanced,” Houston coach Lanny Gooch said. “It is hard to scout us and say we have got to stop that guy.”
The closest to the 6-foot-7 Catledge is 6-4 junior Koary Baskins (7.9 ppg). After 6-3 forward Kendrick Grice (jr., 8.1 ppg), everybody else is 6-1 or shorter.
Seven regulars dominate playing time, including twins Barry Ivy (5-9, sr., 15.5 ppg) and Darrell Ivy (6-1, sr., 13.5 ppg), Nicky Pulliam (6-0, sr., 10. 6 ppg), Tee Carr (5-11, sr., 7.8 ppg), Grice (6-0, jr., 8.1 ppg) and John Ellison (6-0, jr., 6.9) ppg).
The Hilltoppers have to run at breakneck speed, using quickness and defense, to keep their opponents off balance.
In three of its last four games, Houston came from behind in the second half to win. Gooch said that is because his team hasn’t been able to press all the way in the first half.
Take the Tupelo game. Barry Ivy had to sit down with foul trouble in the second quarter while Tupelo used its superior height to open a nine-point halftime lead. With the press back on, Houston ran off 12 unanswered points in three minutes to regain the lead.
Whittling deficits is something that speed is good for. Against Senatobia, Houston cut 17 points off an 18-point deficit in the fourth period and had the ball with 20 seconds left when it drew a charge in the one-point loss.
“We are potentially a contending team, but we are not overpowering anybody,” Gooch said. “If we can’t hurt people with the press, we are not that good a team.”
This is a team that has grown into excellence. In 1994-95, Houston had no player who averaged more than five points the year before. After losing their first two games, someone told Gooch it was the worst team he’d seen.
But with experience, the Hilltoppers improved and finished 15-11, including a Division 2-4A win over then No. 2 Starkville. And after losing only one starter to graduation, Houston is stepping up this season.
Rating the Wave: Gooch said his Hilltoppers were lucky to beat Tupelo. Tupelo is a young team but awesome in spurts.
“They are the most impressive 8-8 team in the state,” Gooch said. “They say we should have won that one because of the records, but Tupelo has been playing some mighty good folks.”
Rating the Devils: Also a young and impressive team is the 12-4 Ashland Blue Devil squad with no senior starter. Tavares Reaves (15 ppg), Quint Gillespie (14 ppg) and 6-4 sophomore Leon Crawford (14 ppg) are all shooting better than 60 percent.
“We still run all the time, but our kids are real selective from the floor,” coach Jon Ginn said.
The Devils have two major tests ahead: a match with Ripley tonight in the North Pontotoc Tournament and a home game against No. 8 Alcorn Central (15-4) Monday.