Because of excellent play against state-ranked teams in a tough out-of-state tournament, Waynesville head coach Chris Pilz said his team is better at this point in the season than it was a season ago.
In the tournament's opening round on Thursday, Waynesville defeated a previously unbeaten team in Pea Ridge (Ark.) 55-33.
Friday, the Tigers started slowly on offense and found itself in a 17-2 hole six minutes into the first quarter. Still, the team displayed uncommon resiliency and battled back to within four points of Hot Springs (Ark.) at halftime.
To "get back in the game with the hole we dug ourselves," Pilz said was "a good sign."
In the third quarter, Waynesville took two brief three-point leads and traded buckets with the opponent throughout the rest of regulation. Hot Springs came up short at the free throw line and allowed Waynesville to send the game into overtime on a shot of its own.
Dreams of a tournament championship crumbled when the Tigers missed a free throw opportunity for the lead. Hot Springs capitalized and placed itself in the running for the tournament's trophy on a half-court buzzer beater.
Even in losing, Pilz said he was impressed with his Tigers team in an early season heart-breaker, which Pilz said his team "handled with class."
"We were able to do things in the game Friday night that took us all the way to February [last season] before we could execute it in a game," Pilz said. "In the first week of December, when we're three months ahead of where we were at this time last year, I just saw our guys start believing in each other and playing together."
On the rebound and against Mt. Vernon (Ark.), an annual contender for the Ark. State Championship, on Saturday, the Tigers played the "best half of basketball we played since I [began] coaching at Waynesville," Pilz said.
At the halfway point, Waynesville led 41-22 and eventually coasted to a 63-54 final against arguably the best team in the tournament.
Throughout the tournament, Pilz noticed improvement in his upperclassmen, especially from senior guard Ethan Howser and junior center Javante Armstrong.
"Those are guys that, for the first time, were relaxed and confident in doing what they can do," Pilz said. Using his 6-foot-5-inch frame, Armstrong was able to team up with fellow big man, sophomore Juwan Morgan, to execute a dual-threat offense in the paint.
In the game against Hot Springs, Howser nailed two shots from beyond the arc to take two separate one-point leads, showing its vast improvement from a year ago.
Senior guard and team leader D.J. Hargrow also contributed quality minutes in each game of the weekend's schedule.
Page 2 of 2 - In "a gym we've never been in," combined with adverse situations against quality basketball teams, Pilz said the team was able to mesh in ways it hadn't done before.
Next on the agenda for Waynesville is the school's first Route 66 Shootout, Pulaski County USA, which will bring some of the Midwest's top competition the hometown hardwood.
"I think our competition is going to [improve] this week," Pilz said. "Teams we play this week are a little better than we've faced so far."
For a complete list of the shootout's games and for a preview of the competition, check out Wednesday's edition of the Daily Guide.