MURFREESBORO — Howard coach Walter McGary wiped his hand over his face, making an attempt at covering the pained look that appeared so often Wednesday afternoon. He first noticed the signs that his gameplan wouldn’t work before his team left its hotel in Murfreesboro.
Once on the court, the early warnings became reality. Howard battled through mistakes to a first-half tie and stayed close into the closing minutes, but the problems that have troubled McGary since November were never more glaring than in the final stretch of the biggest game of the year.
For the third straight season, Howard fell to Liberty Tech in the state tournament. The 62-52 scoreline ended the Tigers’ season, sending them home from the state tournament for the 24th time in program history, still without a title.
“Liberty didn’t do anythng to us,” McGary said. “We did it to ourselves. Some people started going self instead of team. We knew what Liberty was going to do and we were prepared.
"I’m disgusted with how some of my players responded.”
Early in the season, McGary wondered if his team could put aside individual agendas and play as a team. He pleaded with his 6-foot-8 junior, Brandon Walters, to stay out of foul trouble and play up to the potential he knew was there.
For the last two weeks, while Howard worked through the postseason and into the final eight, everything appeared to click. Then, with tipoff just hours away, McGary heard the excuses and the selfish talk again.
Walters got into early foul trouble and only played 20 minutes Wednesday. He finished with 10 rebounds and seven points.
“The gameplan was to work Brandon Walters, but Walters wasn’t there,” McGary said. “He wasn’t there. He didn’t want to work to get position in the paint. When he’s making excuses, he’s one of the world’s worst. Today.... before we even got on the court, excuses.”
Freshman Wayne Caudle masked Walter’s absence early and finished one block shy of a triple double in his first state tournament game. His 16 points and 13 rebounds were both team-highs.
His six blocks in the first half contributed to shooting woes for Liberty through the first two quarters that led to a 21-21 tie. The Crusaders’ pressure, though, eventually became too much to overcome.
Howard led 40-36 with just over six minutes to play in the game before Liberty took control. The Crusaders' undersized lineup had no answer for Caudle or Walters when he was in the game, but pressured Howard's guards and kept the ball out of the post.
Tavarius Gause’s 3-pointer gave the Crusaders a 46-43 lead with 4:20 to play, and Howard never recovered.
Gause led the Crusaders with 16 points, as the defending champions moved one step closer to repeating. They’ll play Mitchell on Friday in the semifinals.
“Until someone takes it from us, it’s ours,” Liberty coach Jarrett Jones said. “We remind them that this is where we are supposed to be every year."
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Howard players trudged up and down the court as McGary slouched into his chair, looking on silently. Seniors Anthony Smith and RodDarius Martin combined to shoot 4 of 18 for the game and the Tigers committed 25 turnovers.
Despite the size advantage provided by Walters and 6-foot-4 Caudle, the Tigers surrendered 22 offensive rebounds and pulled down only 10 of their own.
The differences between Howard and Liberty shone through in the final minutes Wednesday, but first developed months ago. While Howard struggled to find consistency, Liberty was plugging the holes left by a large group of seniors on last season’s title team.
Howard was slipping back into its early season problems during the extended layoff leading up to this season’s state tournament. Liberty spent an hour after practice on Monday running on the track.
“It’s more than just tradition,” Jones said. “They know what it takes and they’re willing to do it. It’s a big sacrifice, but they’re willing to put in the hard work.”