By Jeff Ireland
There seemed to be a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Munford boys’ basketball team as the 2020-21 season began.
Nic Buford was beginning his first season as a high school boys’ head coach. Last year’s team won just nine games and the top two scorers from that team graduated. Just two starters were returning and there were only three players on the roster who played significant minutes for the Cougars last season.
Munford then lost seven of its first eight games.
But as we look up in early February with the regular season winding down, the Cougars are on the verge of winning a district title.
Munford’s emergence as the district’s top team was solidified last Tuesday night at home with a 44-39 District 13-3A win over Brighton, which finished off a season sweep of their county rival.
“I think they are,” Buford said when asked if he thought observers were surprised how well his team is doing. “I try not to pay attention to the chatter, but when you’re from here you’re going to hear things. Honestly, from the outside, people didn’t expect it to go this way. (Brighton) coach (Stan) Gatlin, who is a great friend, told me when I inherited this that I had a sold group. He said I had chance to do this. He saw the talent.”
Munford (7-10 overall, 5-1 district) needed a buzzer beater in overtime to beat Brighton (8-4, 3-3) two weeks ago and Tuesday’s game was very competitive as well.
When Jordan Bell scored inside with 6:55 left in the game, Munford led 34-26 and appeared to be pulling away, but Brighton guard Ken Henning had other ideas. He hit three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the third of which pulled the Cardinals within three points with 1:23 left.
Moments later Brighton’s Kejuan Dyson saw a 3-pointer from the top key that would have tied the game rim out.
Munford’s Keenan Thompson, who hit the buzzer two weeks ago, hit four straight free throws after that to seal the win.
Henning led all scorers with 22 points and Dyson added 11.
Thompson scored 11 points (all on free throws in the second half) for Munford and Javaris Tolton led the way with 12.
Munford went on a 15-2 run that spanned the first and second quarters to go ahead 15-6 before Brighton closed the half on a 12-2 run to pull within one point.
Brighton played the game without starter DeMaryo Gatlin, who is recovering from a knee injury.
“It was already a tough game to play with him but not having him, especially with rebounding and his 12-15 points a game as well as assists, made it even more challenging,” Gatlin said. “I’m proud of the fight my guys had, though. We will continue to try to improve and hopefully see them again in the district championship game.”
The Cougars round out the district schedule against Hardin County and Liberty. If they win those two they will be the regular season district champs.
“It just took them a while to get acclimated to what we were trying to do as coaches,” Buford said. “We’re just trying to lay a strong foundation. I’m so thankful for these seniors. A lot of them are coming out for just one year and sacrificing.
“Honestly, I think people are surprised, but we’re not because we came into this season saying we wanted a district championship,” Tolton said. “We work hard in practice and this game right here is just the start of it.”