Raven Huffman said he was nervous -- well, a little nervous.
“Yeah, a little. But we’ve been in this situation before,” said Huffman, who hit 3-of-4 frees throws in the final 1:07 of play to help Rice hold off Hubbard 62-58 in the opening round of the Kiwanis Classic Tournament Thursday morning at Navarro College.
Rice knows all about pressure. The Bulldogs are 11-1 and 10 of those games have been close.
That’s who they are, these tough, no-quit Bulldogs.
“We have to be clutch,” Huffman said. “All of our games are close. We have to finish. We’re gnats. We stay in it.’’
They do, and whether you like the gnats image and nickname (that’s what the kids call themselves at Rice) this Rice team has soared this season. They won 11 games all last year, but they take 11 wins into Friday’s second round game with Kerens (at 4:30 p.m. at Navarro) with hopes of knocking off the Bobcats, who beat Milford 57-5 in the opening round Thursday to advance.
Kerens has won 11 Kiwanis titles in a row, and a Rice win on Friday would be all but legendary.
“We’re going to see if we’re going to dethrone the king,” Rice Coach Phillip Eddins said. “They’ve won it 11 years in a row. We would sure like to be the ones to beat them. I’m not saying we will. I’m saying we would like to. They will be the best team we have played all year.’’
Rice almost didn’t get to the second round.
The Bulldogs took a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter, but Hubbard (6-5) stormed back with a 17-6 run and closed to 57-55 when D’Warren Simmons grabbed a rebound after a missed free throw and hit a put-back with 1:23 left in the game. Huffman answered with a pair of free throws with 1:07 left to lift Rice to a 59-55 lead. Simmons, who led Hubbard with 25 points and hit four 3-pointers, missed a 3 with 50 seconds left and Huffman nailed another free throw with 0:47 on the clock to make it a five-point game.
Hubbard’s Brian Walker hit his only 3 of the game with 33 seconds left to close to 60-58 but Rice found a seam and Dylnn Anderson hit Collin Haston with a great pass and Haston knocked down the drive to make the final 62-58.
It was Rice’s cool under fire and Huffman’s big free throws that made the difference in the end.
“Those free throws were huge, huge, huge,’’ Eddins said. “Give Hubbard credit. They came back and fought us to the end. It was ugly. In the fourth quarter we kind of quit doing what we had been doing. But give Hubbard credit. They never quit.’’
Huffman hit three frees throws in a span of 20 seconds, which is three times as many free throws as Hubbard made in the game.
Simmons made 1-of-2 free throws with 3:09 left in the first quarter and Hubbard didn’t make another one, going 1 for 11 for the game.
‘If they would have made their free throws we would have been in a ton of hurt,” Eddins said.
The Jags have struggled all year at the line.
“Every game we have lost is because we haven’t made our free throws,’’ said Hubbard coach Marcus Simmons, whose team is 6-5. “It’s come back to haunt us.’’
Simmons had nothing but praise for Rice’s kids, who play scrappy brand of basketball that has frustrated just about everyone the Bulldogs have faced.
The gnat image might just fit. It has worked or Rice so far .
“Rice is a good team,’’ Marcus Simmons said. “They play hard. They never got rattled. When we made our run they stayed poised and made their free throws (down the stretch). I like their team because they play hard.’’
Hubbard led in the early stages, thanks to D’Warren Simmons, who poured in 13 points in the first half, hitting three 3’s in the second quarter. Jordan Johnson, who finished with 11 points, hit two 3s in the first quarter and gave Hubbard 7-4 and 10-7 leads but Rice kept coming and led 16-13 at the quarter and pushed the lead to 35-31 at halftime when Sim Nezar hit a 3 at the buzzer.
Hubbard went cold in the third, missing nine shots in a row at one point and went 3-of-17 from the floor in the third. That opened the door for Rice and the Bulldogs ran through it. Collin Haston opened the scoring for Rice in the third with a 3 to make it a 38-33 game and ignite a 12-0 run that ended with a 3 by Nezar that gave Rice a 47-33 lead — the largest of the game. But Hubbard came back to make it close before the Bulldogs pulled it out in the final minute.
Nezar, a freshman, finished with 19 points and Daniel Arteaga, the team’s only senior, scored 12. Haston scored five of his 10 points in the fourth, including the game clincher, and Huffman scored five of his seven points in the fourth. Trey Henderson, who led Hubbard with 15 rebounds, scored 10 and Walker finished with three points.
“Last year we got beat in the consolation game and went 1-2 in this tournament,’’ Eddins said. “These kids have worked hard (to get 11 wins this early). They played spring ball and summer ball and have played hard.’’
Raven Huffman said he was nervous -- well, a little nervous.
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