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High Standards

High Standards

After another year of dominant district play
Lady Mustangs have their sights set on state

By Bill Sorrell

A pregame meal of waffles at Waffle House followed by chicken nuggets and chicken waffles at Chick-fil-A made for a pressing fourth quarter for Houston’s girls basketball team.

“It was last year before we played Ridgeway,” said Houston senior guard Jayla Hemingway. “That was the first game we started pressing and we were so tired. We thought we were going to throw up.”

Fast food may be the only thing that slows down Houston’s fast-paced team that leads the state in scoring and is primed for their third consecutive trip to the Class AAA state tournament.

The group of seniors is the winningest class in school history. The last three years senior classes have broken the previous record for wins.
When the Lady Mustangs beat Kirby Feb. 5 it was their 106th victory topping the Class of 2018 which had 105 wins and the Class of 2017’s 100 wins.

“They are going to set a lofty standard for whoever comes after them. It’s going to be hard to top that,” said Houston Head Coach Ben Moore.
Ranked No. 3 in the state by the Associated Press, the Lady Mustangs finished the regular season with a 23-2 record. They were 10-0 in District 15-AAA, winning their 50th straight district game. None on the team has lost a district game.

With three straight Region 8-AAA championships, Houston is looking beyond Memphis.

“Finishing in Murfreesboro has always been the standard around here,” said Hemingway, one of three finalists for Miss Basketball.

Melisa Carter, senior post player, said, “Every year it pushes us to do better than what we have done the previous year.”

The goal this year is “to win state,” said senior guard Madison Griggs.

Houston went to its first state tournament in 2014, won its first state tournament game in 2017 over Clarksville in the quarterfinals and won its first semifinal game in 2018 toppling undefeated Bradley Central, avenging a regular-season loss.

Houston lost to Riverdale in last year’s state championship 77-50 and to the Lady Warriors in the 2017 semifinals 69-50.

Riverdale is ranked No. 1 this season by the Associated Press.
Going to state in his first season as head coach Moore, in his third year, called it “gratifying and rewarding. We were really young that year. We started Madison, Jayla, Melisa. They were all sophomores and Destinee Wells was a freshman. It was really important for that group to get to the state. They had lost to Central in the region semifinals when they were all freshmen. We got there and won a game. It was rewarding to break through that barrier.

“We want to be able to present them with new experiences, new challenges. The only thing they haven’t been able to do is win the last game. That has been something that we have focused on this year, finishing. How do you prepare to be at your best at the end? At some point our season will come down to a minute or two where we are going to have to be at our best to survive and advance. We are trying daily to prepare for those opportunities. They want to win. They want to do it together.”

Togetherness has been a key to success.

“Most of us have been playing together for a long time. We have good chemistry off the court that makes us click more on the court,” said Hemingway. “We know each other’s habits. It’s easy to play off each other”
Said Carter, “We know each personality and who can do what.”

Houston returned 11 players from its state runner-up team.

“The biggest difference is the experience factor. We were able to hit the ground running with some things we did early in the year and how we wanted to play. It was a lot less going back and teaching the basics because so many of the these kids have been around for awhile. There have been some things that we have to work at and get better at but we have been able to pick up some things where we left off last year.”

Griggs said, “We have the experience of past hard games we played in and won.”

Moore said, “These kids have all been through the battles. They do so many things on the floor basketball-wise. The chemistry is fantastic. Throughout their career they have found ways to win games even when it wasn’t their best night or my best night. We won a lot of games we probably didn’t have any business winning, we probably didn’t deserve, because they are winners.”

There has been another factor in success.

“The biggest thing is the unselfishness that our kids have. I told the media last year at the state tournament our kids had to figure out that there is a lot of sacrifice involved in playing here,” said Moore. “It is a perfect example of kids willing to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Griggs, who has signed with Memphis and has scored more than 1,200 career points, “probably could have doubled that if she would have gone somewhere else where she was Option No. 1 every night.”

Hemingway, who has signed with Mississippi State, has scored more than 2,400 points.

“If she were somewhere where they were not winning as much or winning by as much, she probably would haven broken the country record. She has scored that many points and a large portion of her career has played less than three quarters of the game because of the score getting out of hand so there have been some sacrifices,” said Moore.

“We have some kids that come off our bench that could start anywhere else but they are willing to sacrifice because they want to be part of winning. I think it is always rewarding when you see teenagers be willing to sacrifice individual glory, individual goals or individual attention because they want to be part of winning. I have always tried to get them to understand is that winning is what matters. If you buy into that the rest falls into place.

“All these kids could do more somewhere else but they couldn’t win as much as they have been able to win here.

“Them sacrificing some individual stuff that we get so wrapped up in and say ‘I’d rather score less, shoot less and play less ‘ and win has made a difference.”

The team motto is “Pay the Price.”

“We talked about trying to understand that if you want to do certain things there is a price you pay to accomplish that,” said Moore.

Hemingway has had an accomplished and decorated career.

She was a finalist for Miss Basketball as a sophomore and has been all-state three seasons. She is the 2019 district Player of the Year and was in 2017. She was region tournament MVP in 2018 and district tournament MVP in 2017. Her 23.2 scoring average is second in Shelby-Metro. In the regular season she had 580 points. She averages 7.4 rebounds. She has a team-high 83 steals.

She signed with Mississippi State because of the “environment” and coaching staff that “felt like family. I felt like that is where I needed to be,” she said.

She is aware of the spotlight.

“I learned that you are going to have people who look up to you even if you don’t know it. You have to be aware of the kind of example you set,” she said.

Wells and Carter are both averaging 12.1 points, Griggs 9.3. Carter has a team-high 13 blocks and leads in rebounding with 7.9. Carter and Griggs are second-team all-district this season.

Wells, a junior point guard with 156 assists and 74 steals, is on pace to finish among the top 3 in the county. She has been Houston’s staring point guard since she was a freshman. She was MVP of the region and district tournament last year. She and Hemingway are 2019 first-team all-district.

“Destinee Wells, in my opinion, is the best point guard in the state. She is fantastic. She really makes us go. She makes everybody else’s job easier,” said Moore. “She is a winner.”

“Tatiana Gary (a junior forward) is the kind of glue girl. She takes charges. She rebounds. She is good on defense. She is very unselfish. She doesn’t get to score much (2-point average). She doesn’t take a lot of shots. She does the little stuff that goes unnoticed but holds us all together.”

Carter, who has offers from Texas junior colleges, has been the Lady Mustangs’ most improved player said Moore.

“She committed herself this off-season to get into shape and be more conditioned. She has become a better free throw shooter, better all-around shooter, ball handler. She has always been able to play, it was a matter of how long she could play. The quality of time to be out there has been fantastic.”

Griggs signed with Memphis because the Lady Tigers recruited her the hardest.

“Players and coaches showed me a lot of love,” she said.

At Houston she learned “you can’t take any off days. “

Carter said, “Basketball is a team effort and if you want to play, then you will do whatever it takes to win for your team.”

Senior point guard India Wilson and her sister sophomore guard Aliyah Wilson transferred from Southwind.

“That was big for us. They have provided some depth off of our bench that we didn’t have. Nakiyah Westbrook (freshman guard) will be a pretty good player. Her coming to Houston helped. We have three kids that weren’t part of the run last year who are here this year and have really improved our depth. That is one of the best qualities of this group is how deep we are,” said Moore.

India Wilson, who is averaging 2.6 points and plans to run track at Southeast Missouri State University, said that her confidence has improved.
With confidence that she will play well, “then I am not worried. It’s a mind thing for me.”

Junior guard Zipporah Davis is averaging 4.8 points, Westbrook 4.2, Aliyah Wilson 2.5. The Lady Mustangs have also relied on sophomore forward Kennedy Trice, sophomore guard Grace Gibson, senior guard Dariya Barnes and freshman post Emma Belcher.

The Lady Mustangs are robust on defense, holding opponents to about 40 points per game.

“We can be really good defensively when we want to. We try to hang out hats on how we guard and how we rebound. We are all man to man. We try to pressure people a lot with how we guard in half court,” said Moore.

“This the best offensive team (72 points) we have had since I’ve been here. There was a time when we could be stagnant on offense and struggle to score against really good teams. We have to be really good on both ends of the floor to win the whole thing.

“We like to play fast and put kids in space and play at a high pace and do a lot of ball screen, a lot of dribble-drive. I have been in my past more of a passing offense, pass, cut and screen coach, motion offense. I have gotten away from that this year because we wanted to be downhill because we have so many kids that are good at breaking people off the bounce. We have tried to use that as a strength.

“I really want kids to play hard. I think that is the best compliment that you can get. I want us to be tough, hard-nosed. We coach them hard. We try to get them to play hard. We try to build tough teams.”

Griggs said, “My goal is to not let a team score.”

Carter said she wants Houston to score 100.

Through the regular season the Lady Mustangs are 79-12 in the last three years, finishing 28-4 in 2017, 28-6 last year. At the end of December 2017, they were 10-5 after losing five games that month.

“That was a wake-up call, this is what it is going to take for us to get better,” said Moore, as Houston lost to East Tennessee powerhouses including Bradley Central.

Houston won 18 straight to reach the state championship game including the semifinal victory over the Lady Bears.

It was Moore’s most memorable game.

“Getting to play them in the state tournament and getting to measure our growth and see how we had evolved and gotten better was huge. We beat them doing the things that we preached from Day One of what we had to do to win. Being able to see us in December not good enough to do those things, then play them in March on the biggest stage, when they were undefeated, when we had lost five games, to beat them under those circumstances and see the growth we had, that was memorable, rewarding and gratifying.”

Rewarding has been the humorous moments the team has shared on the court.

“Pick a day,” said Jayla. “The funniest thing this year was when Madison tried to take a charge at the beginning of the season.”
Griggs said, “If you knew me, I don’t take charges. It was funny when I tried to take a charge.”

Griggs laughs when “Coach Moore is really mad and he is trying not to laugh and he bursts out laughing. He can’t help it. He tries to be serious all the time.”

Said Moore, “Most of it is inside jokes that I am not privilege to. Sometimes they’ll be laughing about something and I have no idea what it is.”

Carter said, “The funniest thing was when Dariya shot the ball on the opposite team’s goal, when she was on defense in practice.”

Moore said, “There is not a chance that would happen in a game.”

Along with Moore, they have listened to their parents.

Carter’s father, Cedric Carter, who played basketball in Leeds, Ala., said he has told her to put academics first and stay focused.

India Wilson’s mother Gail Richmond, who played at Rust College and Byhalia High School, and father Cedric Wilson, who played at Byhalia, have told her to play her best and not play down to someone else’s level.

Hemingway’s parents, Nicole and Jeff Hemingway played at Newberry (South Carolina) College.

“They gave me a lot of advice. They tell me to play as hard as I can and the best of my ability.”

In past years the Lady Mustangs have felt like that with Riverdale being so dominant “you had to play a perfect game to even have a chance to beat them,” said Moore.

“There are a lot of really good teams across the state we as coaches have seen. It is going to come down to who is playing the best at the state tournament. The team that is the hottest is going to have the best chance to win.”

A December loss to Knoxville Bearden “humbled” the Lady Mustangs this season.

“We came back and had to put in a different level of work,” said Moore, who was Wooddale boys head coach before being hired at Houston. He had been an assistant for seven years at Wooddale, Melrose and Knoxville Fulton.

“I have learned to manage the team better than when I was the first head coach. I ran some teams in the ground, that is how hard I was. We practiced hard. I have a better understanding when we need to put our foot on the pedal and when we need to ease off a little bit.

“If you want to get to the end there is a difference in fighting, scratching and clawing every day,” he added. “You also have to be fresh and kids have to be energized to make sure to get them to the end and win at the end.”

This season will be a success if the Lady Mustangs are playing their best at the end he said.

“I have been a part of teams in the past that were good enough to win state championships but had a bad day. That didn’t mean they weren’t state championship good. They didn’t get the most out of what they could be.

“Our kids will see anything less than (a state championship) as a failure. I won’t see it as failure,” he concluded. “If we give it our best shot I’ll be able to live with that.”

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