BY CHAD DARE email@example.com
---- — CHAMPAIGN — Danville coach Ted Houpt had a completely opposite feeling on Saturday night after his team's 59-56 loss to Champaign Centennial.
A night earlier, the second-year head man of the Viking program thought his team's loss to the Champaign Central Maroons hurt as much as any loss his team had suffered in his tenure.
And for the first 16 minutes on Saturday night, it looked like Danville was going through a repeat performance, but something changed at halftime.
The Vikings played one of their best halves of basketball this season, taking a 16-point second-half deficit down to the final outcome of 59-56 and Danville guard Kylen Butler's half-court shot at the buzzer was just off the mark.
"It helps when we knocked down 3-pointers and you can't count on that all of the time,'' Houpt said. "But, I think that good shooting came from some positive energy and a commitment to play with pride.
"It's energy. It's enthusiasm. That's the best energy that we've had and it's not a coincidence that the 3-pointers were going down. When you are catching and shooting in rhythm, it is a lot easier than trying to create something 1-on-1. If we run our offense and compete, we can be good.''
One of the biggest sparks for the Danville program came from guard Kemony Lester, who scored all 16 of his team-high points in the second half and the 5-foot-9 junior was a remarkable 5-of-6 from 3-point range in the second half.
"Our composure changed in the second half,'' Lester said. "We started believing in ourselves. We just didn't have enough energy coming into the game.
"That second half shows us that we can beat anyone on any given night when we played with energy.''
And while Houpt isn't big on moral victories, he does believe that Saturday's second half could be the start of turnaround for the Vikings (4-10 overall, 2-5 in the Big 12 Conference)
"I'm very happy with second-half effort,'' he said. "But it's clear and obvious. The thing going forward with this team, and we still have lots of game left, we have to do it for all four quarters. I know that's a cliche, but we are showing greatness in spots and more spots recently.
"We just need to do it all the way through a game.''
Houpt pointed out that Lester's five 3-pointers was a big boost on Saturday night, but just as important is the energy he brings coming off the bench, whether it's on offense or defense.
"I think it's a boost to see him sprint the baseline to get open for a 3-pointer, just as impressive as the basket,'' Houpt said. "He also defends well. He got a big steal tonight and he dove into the stands trying to get another.
"I think everyone on the floor plays harder when you see someone like him playing that hard. When he handles the ball like he has the last two games, he has so much to offer this team.''
Lester admits that's his role.
"Coach has told me that I need to play with energy and provide a spark,'' Lester said. "As a team, we just need to play a little better from the start and we can put together a good run this season.''
Danville got itself into trouble during the second quarter.
The Chargers (12-4 overall, 6-1 in the Big 12) built a 36-22 halftime lead as the Vikings converted just three of 16 possessions, making just 2-of-11 shots and committing five turnovers. But, Danville's biggest problem was that nearly every possession didn't last more than two passes.
"When a team puts pressure on us, we have a tough time beating the pressure and then putting the ball back out to run our offense,'' Houpt said. "We did a better job in the second half, but just because we beat the pressure, it doesn't mean that you have to shoot the ball right away. Now if it's a good shot, take it. But if not, pull it out and run the offense.
"We did that in the second half. The guys were moving well, setting good screens and our offense ran pretty well. We look a lot more threatening to an opponent when we have the "Eye of the Tiger" and we are competing.''
While Lester led the Vikings with 16 points, Danville also got double digits from Denzel Smith and Jarhed Watson with 13 each. Watson also had a game-high nine rebounds.
Michael Finke, who has already signed to play for John Groce and the University of Illinois next season, had a game-high 19 points for Centennial to go along with a team-high eight rebounds.
In the junior varsity contest, Danville defeated Centennial 42-40 on a last-second jumper from Jordan Cunningham, who scored a team-high 12 points.
Up next for the Vikings is a home game next Friday against the Normal West Wildcats. Tip off for the junior varsity game is set for 6 p.m. with the varsity contest tentatively set to start at 7:30 p.m.