It was homecoming for former Russia assistant Brad Francis, and his 1-10 Houston Wildcat team almost made it one he’d never forget.
Russia – If chills traveled through Brad Francis’ aching body Friday night, it had nothing to do with a fever.
Rather, it had everything to do with the fervor with which his underdog Houston Wildcats basketball team played.
The one-win Wildcats flirted with one of the season’s biggest upsets against Shelby County League juggernaut Russia. But a slew of fourth-quarter free throws helped the Raiders pull away for a closer-than-it-sounds 43-33 victory.
Houston opened the season with a 67-39 loss to Russia on Dec. 2. In that loss Houston trailed by 28 points at the half. On Friday, Houston led 30-29 with 7:45 left in the game.
“We had a nice long talk on Monday about redeeming ourselves,” said Francis, still shaking off the affects of a cold he’d battled all week. “We got beat by four league teams pretty bad the first round of play. One of the nice things about the Shelby County League is you get to play everybody twice. Any time you get beat by 28 the first time, you worry about what’s going to happen the second time.”
This game most definitely had a different feel for Francis. And not just the final score.
Friday was a homecoming for Houston’s first-year head coach. He’d spent 18 seasons coaching in Russia’s gym as an assistant coach under Paul Bremigan, who has since taken over the program at Troy High School. Together they won half a dozen SCL championships and finished as Division IV state runners-up in 2002.
But as he arrived Friday, Francis made his way to the visitor’s locker room. He still paced the sidelines – at times clutching a white Gatorade towel as if he was a disciple of the late Jerry Tarkanian – but this time from the visitor’s bench.
“I didn’t know how I’d feel until about 8 p.m. Friday night,” Francis said of coaching in the gym again. “I haven’t felt well all week. That kind of took my mind off it, to tell you the truth.”
If Francis was going to be sick during the basketball season, this might have been the best week to do it. The Russia resident is familiar with the Raiders players so little scouting was necessary. On the other side of the court, Russia’s fans might have been wondering just who were these Wildcats? They didn’t resemble the group that had lost in that season opener.
“I know all the kids and I know all the players. It was fun,” Francis said. “But during the 32 minutes it’s going on it’s just another game. As much as I try to make it something it is or isn’t, it’s still just one of 22.
“We played like we know we’re capable of playing. We haven’t done that all year but the kids executed the game plan to a T. … I thought you know, this is getting close to crunch time. This might happen.”
Russia senior Cole Tebbe hit the first of two free throws to tie the score 30-30 with 4:36 left in the fourth quarter. It was the first of 12 free throws made by the Raiders (11-2 overall, 6-1 SCL) in the quarter. All but one free throw came in the bonus situation as Russia crashed the defensive boards hard in the quarter.
“That’s one thing we haven’t been the greatest at,” Russia coach Spencer Cordonnier said of his team’s rebounding. “We stressed it before the game. We’ve got things to work on. We might be 11-2, but we’ve got a lot of things to work on to prepare us for the rest of the season.”
Houston sophomore Howie Ludwig dropped in a three-pointer to give the Wildcats a 30-29 lead with 7:45 left in the game. But Houston (1-10 overall, 1-6 SCL) didn’t score again until sophomore John Leist made a free throw with 41 seconds to play. By then Russia had taken control with a 10-0 run.
Junior Jack Dapore led Russia with 21 points, 15 coming off three-pointers. He also went 6-of-8 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter. Tebbe added seven points.
Ludwig and senior teammate Cameron Arnold led Houston with 14 points each. The duo accounted for all the Wildcats’ points in the first half (18) and all but five overall.
“It would have been great for the kids,” Francis said of pulling off the upset. “Forget about me. It would have been great for the kids to show them what they need to do to beat a great team. We’ll get one. We’re busting our butts too hard in practice to not get one. You won’t hear me complain about my kids one bit. They bust their tails at all times.”
A little over a month after scoring a season-high 67 points against Houston in the opener, Russia came within two points of scoring a season low. But a win is a win. And Russia will take it with a three-game road trip starting tonight at Triad and continuing next Friday and Saturday at Jackson Center and Minster.
“Give Houston credit. They came in with a lot of energy,” Cordonnier said. “We came out flat and it gave them confidence they can play with us. When you do that things kind of snowball on you. We had a ton of turnovers tonight.
“I told the kids maybe we weren’t as prepared as we needed to be. I told the kids I’d take half the credit and you take the other half. If Houston can play with that kind of energy they’re going to win some games.”