WILLIS — For the third straight year, the Willis Wildkats are playoff bound.
Willis trailed New Caney throughout the third quarter Friday night, but outscored the Eagles by seven points in the fourth and hung on in the final minutes for a 55-52 victory in District 20-5A.
Willis (15-20, 10-7) needed a win over the Eagles (16-17, 6-11) and a loss by Montgomery (9-8) against Kingwood Park (9-8). The Panthers won that meeting 44-28. The Wildkats own tiebreakers over both teams as they swept each of them during the season.
Willis wraps up the regular season at Porter Tuesday night.
“I did not want to go on the road and clinch it,” Willis coach Michael Storms said. “This year, we’ve had a great home crowd and the student section has been. They’ve been a game changer. We definitely wanted to do that tonight.”
New Caney wanted to play spoiler on the road against the Wildkats.
“Our kids played incredibly hard and they played composed,” New Caney coach Matt Farmer said. “It’s a difficult place to come over and try to get a win. Our kids were all in and they were on point the entire night.”
Willis trailed by seven points at halftime and throughout the third quarter. But an ally-oop stuffed in by junior Ja’Kobe McCoy and another dunk by him with 14 seconds left in the frame ignited the gym. McCoy had a team-high 17 points Tuesday night in an overtime loss at Tomball and had 16 points against the Eagles.
“Ja’Kobe has finally played like a big man the last four games,” Storms said. “Since then, we have played as a better team because he plays so big. That’s what we need from him.”
Willis went on a 12-4 run to open the fourth quarter and didn’t allow a field goal until the 3:15 mark.
But free throws down the stretch were problematic as Willis went 0 for 9 for a stretch before junior Ja’Len Moore made a pair with two seconds left to play to give the Wildkats a three-point lead.
Moore finished with a team-high 17 points.
“The crazy thing is we do late game scenarios every day in practice,” Storms said. “They live and die by free throws and taking care of the ball. I guess we hit enough to make it count. We were just fortunate to pull out that win.”
New Caney missed a shot from three quarters down the court at the buzzer.
“The bigs inside hurt,” Farmer said of McCoy and Moore. “And that’s been something that kind of hurt us all year. We’re not the biggest team in terms of height and size. But their height inside -- they really crash the boards well and made some really big clutch shots close to the rim.”
New Caney led 30-23 at halftime as the first two quarters of play featured six lead changes and three ties.
The Eagles, who came in winners of two straight, beat Willis by eight points in January but that game was later forfeited due to an ineligible player.
On Friday night, senior Zion Childress and sophomore Samuel Brandon each had 15 points. Senior Phillip McDaniel added 10.
“They are one of the most talented teams in the district,” Storms said. “They are a playoff-type team. I’m super proud that my guys could pull it out. It was tough. It was a fight.”
New Caney wraps up the season at home against Huntsville Tuesday night. The goal for the Eagles is to finish the year at .500 in terms of win percentage. The Eagles were 7-25 a year ago.
“I told our locker room that I know it hurts not to make the playoffs,” Farmer said. “But the improvement overall is just vast. We’re so proud. That’s all on the kids -- they are coming in and putting in the work. Plus the camaraderie and the chemistry from the coaching staff.”
Wildkats junior Charles Kibble ended with nine points.
Willis, which has now won four of six, honored senior Coleman Davis during a pregame ceremony.