HS Boys Basketball: Defense Wins the Day for The Woodlands in Intense Battle for the Playoffs

By: Jake Wilson
| Published 02/16/2024


SPRING, TX -- Grand Oaks High School was the host of a rare district play-in matchup between the New Caney Eagles (18-17) and The Woodlands Highlanders (20-12) in a game to determine who would take 13-6A’s final playoff spot.

Both teams entered the day at 10-6 in district play, with a win over each other earlier in the season. A tightrope act from the Highlanders through the second half of the season combined with New Caney’s surge past tough opponents to necessitate a winner-take-all finale.

In an exclusive interview with The Woodlands Online Sports, Woodlands Head Coach Dale Reed spoke on the intense road that has led to a play-in for the postseason.

“Honestly, this whole month has felt like the playoffs for us,” said Reed. “It has been a playoff atmosphere for us for the last four or five games, and the kids have kept their composure.”

All of the preparation and planning went to work after the opening tip. The defenses were the first factors of the game to shine, as both units clamped down on shot attempts. No amount of ball movement or open space allowed the teams to create separation.

When shots did fly, they frequently missed the mark. Multiple three-point attempts from the Highlanders would have given the team a valuable cushion in the early going but misses and no offensive boards gave the ball back to the Eagles.

New Caney’s possessions did not fare better. Frequent drives to the lane yielded few makes due to the distinct size advantage in the Highlanders’ favor.

Just five combined shots fell in the first quarter, resulting in a defensive war of attrition that ended with The Woodlands in front 7-5.

“I think we had jitters offensively,” said Reed on the first-quarter performance. “Defensively, we wanted it to be that way, but our offense just wasn’t hitting shots.”

An 11-2 run from the Eagles jumpstarted the offenses for the second quarter while capturing the largest lead of the night for New Caney at seven points. The inside shots that were missed in the first started to connect in greater numbers.

A Highlander timeout attempted to remedy the situation by stopping momentum and worked to perfection. Back-to-back threes out of the 30-second break brought The Woodlands within one point of tying.

Stops on defense and a make from inside the paint gave the Highlanders their tie and an eventual lead with three minutes remaining in the half.

The rest of the second quarter saw the lead traded back and forth, with each make carrying momentum swinging significance. With the last possession, the Highlanders took a full minute shopping for a shot before the attempt missed the mark.

The teams entered the locker rooms for halftime deadlocked at 21 points apiece.

“We weren’t forcing stuff. We just weren’t making anything,” said Reed following a down offensive half. “I told our guys those things will fall into place.”

Following the halftime break, the defenses reemerged as controlling factors of the game. The pace, scoring, and possessions of both teams were dictated by the opposing team’s ability to slow things to a crawl and limit scoring.

A single make from New Caney constituted the combined offense from both teams through four minutes of play. The Eagles’ inability to grow the run past two points meant the window was still open for the Highlanders to take the lead if they could get their shots to fall.

Quick ball movement was the key to success for The Woodlands, as wide-open shooters started to connect from behind the arch. Consecutive makes were enough for the Highlanders to take a brief lead, but their makes unintentionally awoke the offenses of both squads.

The brief two-point lead for the Highlanders lasted less than a minute as New Caney started pushing the pace in the open floor. Lightning-fast dribbles to the rim saw the team reclaim its lead while electrifying the faithful Eagle crowd.

Blistering pace and last-second layups gave New Caney a 32-28 lead going into the final eight minutes of play.

“Nothing needed to change for us going into the fourth,” said Reed. “We were playing great defense that wore them down and allowed us to keep coming at them.”

With their backs against the wall, the Highlanders pulled out all the stops, hoping to regain the lead.

Their effort started with a full-court press to generate turnovers in the backcourt. Their strategy paid off, with New Caney’s first two possessions resulting in zero points.

A missed shot failed to inch The Woodlands any closer to a tie, and a timeout from the Eagles sought to readjust the team’s focus in the clutch. But the pressure of the Highlander defenders was too much to fix, and the Woodlands inched closer as a result.

The teams were tied again with five minutes, with New Caney still unable to solve the Highlander press. Screens, slips, and pump-fakes all failed to punch through the brick wall defense.

“It comes down to the work they put in from the beginning of August,” said Reed on his team’s defense. “Our guys have been challenged since the start, and they didn’t back down.”

The frequency of stops gave the Highlanders the chance to take the lead with time winding down. Two straight makes from inside the arch situated The Woodlands with a 36-32 lead with 2:17 left in the game.

New Caney entered desperation mode following the lead change, as shown by their intentional fouling to preserve the clock. Misses from shooters provided a glimpse of hope for the Eagles, but the impenetrable Highlander defense didn’t budge.

Last-ditch attempts from New Caney fell shy of the comeback in the face of the immovable Woodlands effort. The final buzzer sounded with the Highlanders taking the district’s final playoff spot in a 46-34 victory.

“Every year, our school puts up the playoff years, and we don’t want to be the one that doesn’t have 2024,” said Reed. “Now we get to put 2024 up there with 19 years in a row. People don’t understand how hard that is.”

Coach Reed and the Highlanders get to celebrate their playoff birth for a brief stint while the playoff structure gets set for their first-round matchup.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, their hard-fought run through the district comes to a sour end. However, the accomplishments of a season filled with ups and downs are a building block for the New Caney program to grow from.

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