BY CHAD DARE
Playing well and getting better just wasn’t enough for the Danville boys basketball team.
The Vikings needed the ultimate prize — a win.
Danville got that elusive first victory on Saturday night at the Eaton Electric Lincoln Tournament with a 46-44 win over Morton.
“Instead of going 0-5 this year, we were able to get a win,’’ said Danville junior Denzel Smith, who made the game-winning 3-pointer with 1 minute, 19 seconds left.
This win snapped the Vikings 15-game losing streak at the Lincoln Tournament and it was the first victory for head coach Ted Houpt.
“It’s a relief,’’ he said. “I don’t know about exhilaration or happiness … I just know that I can finally breathe — so it’s a relief.’’
And part of that can be attributed to the fact that Danville suffered a gut-wrenching loss to the host Lincoln Railers on Saturday morning.
In a triple-overtime contest, Lincoln pulled out a 52-51 win over Danville.
“In one day, we had a shot go against us and then to come back, battle down to the wire and this time the ball bounces our way,’’ Houpt said. “The important thing is our guys put themselves in a position, both times, to win a game.
“They kept fighting. That’s more important than anything else. We fight and compete all of the time.’’
Danville players said the most important thing to them was the improvement they made from the season-opening 78-54 loss to Champaign Centennial on Monday.
“We’ve gotten much better as a team since that Centennial game,’’ said Smith, who averaged 19.8 points per game in the Lincoln Tournament.
The Vikings (1-4) did it with good man-to-man defense in both games on Saturday, allowing just 96 points after allowing 70 or more in their first three losses.
“We really weren’t a team when this week started,’’ Danville senior guard Te’Von Hutcherson said. “But through the five games we played this week, we came together and we got better in each game. I think we’re a team now.
“We have established what we are about and how hard and committed we are to be successful.’’
And the fact that Saturday’s victory came just six hours after a stinging triple overtime loss?
“This says the Vikings are a hard-fighting team and we will never give up,’’ Hutcherson said. “A lot of our players were tired after playing so hard in the three-overtime game, so it feels really good that we kept going hard and we pushed through to get a victory.’’
Houpt added the Vikings learned something from the loss to Railers.
“We learned from the earlier game to keep your composure … you can see the growth already,’’ he said.
That’s because Morton (0-5) rallied from a 7-point deficit (41-34) to take a 44-43 lead on a layup from Jared Liddle with 1:42 left.
Earlier in the day, the Vikings were in the same position. And just like they did multiple times against Lincoln, Danville came right back with Smith drilling a 3-pointer from the right baseline.
“This tournament showed us how we need to play our game,’’ Smith said. “We needed someone to make a shot, and I took it.’’
And Houpt believes this is just a start for his junior forward.
“He has the talent — there is no doubt about that,’’ Houpt said. “He has been working on his consistent effort and attitude. That will take him to another level. I think he is a big-time player. I think people will notice him all around the state. He is competing at another level.
“I think his skill set will transfer over to the college game. We need to keep him going.’’
And what impressed Houpt as much as anything on Saturday was the fact that Smith had five assists against Morton and four earlier in the day against Lincoln.
“We know he can score and rebound, but he also had some really great passes,’’ Houpt said.
And what about his team as they prepare for the home opener on Friday against Decatur Eisenhower.
“I feel good about going into any conference game we play,’’ he said. “I don’t think there is a team that we can’t compete with. That’s exciting, because I can’t say that I knew that at the start of the season.
“I didn’t know much, not that I know a lot now, but I know enough to know that our team has heart, and we have some skill.’’
Friday’s game, which is also the home debut for Houpt, will start at 6 p.m. with the sophomore game and the varsity game is tentatively set for 7:30 p.m.