Wagner Boys at STATE
by Express News :: Mar 14, 2009
Wagner's Steven Rose goes in for a basket against Cedar Hill's Shawn Glover (right).
By Lorne Chan- Express-News
AUSTIN — For the past three weeks, Wagner played the role of giant-killer, knocking off one bigger state-ranked opponent after another.
The Thunderbirds were standing up to another giant in Cedar Hill on Friday, until the Longhorns' Tanner Milson was standing open with two seconds left.
Milson hit a 3-pointer from the left corner of the Erwin Center floor to give the Longhorns a 61-58 win over Wagner in the Class 5A state semifinals.
“That hurt,” Wagner post Jordan Jones said. “To come this far and get beat like that, it just hurts.”
Wagner's Devante Hill hit a layup with 15 seconds left to tie the game at 58, and the Thunderbirds ran a press on Cedar Hill on the final possession. The Longhorns were able to get down the floor, and Anthony Wilson found Milson wide open for the game-winning shot in front of 10,125 fans.
“I've dreamed about a shot like that for a long time,” said Milson, who finished with 15 points.
Cedar Hill (35-3) will play DeSoto (32-8) in the Class 5A state championship game at 8:30 p.m. today. DeSoto and Cedar Hill are six miles apart in the Metroplex.
Wagner (32-8), in its fourth year as a school and third varsity season, was undersized and considered a heavy underdog to Cedar Hill, the fourth-ranked team in the state. But the same formula that got Wagner to the state tournament knocked Cedar Hill down to the T-birds' size.
The Longhorns had 6-foot-7 center Thomas Gipson and 6-6 senior Shawn Glover, while Wagner's tallest player is Andre Roberson at 6-5. Wagner neutralized any height disadvantage with its hustle, outrebounding Cedar Hill 28-17 for the first half and 44-36 for the game.
Roberson had 10 rebounds by halftime, finishing with 10 points and 17 rebounds.
Jones, a 6-foot junior, spent most of the game defending Gipson and held him to five points in the first half. Gipson finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, and Jones had 12 points and nine rebounds.
“This should have been ours,” Jones said. “We had more heart.”
With a young lineup, Wagner began the playoffs ranked fifth in the area and unranked in the state. It upset Madison, No. 2 in the state, and No. 10 Stevens in back-to-back games in the second and third rounds.
“Nobody expected us to go this far,” Wagner's Jordan Clarkson said. “It was a letdown here though. We played our hearts out. We have to live with it now.”
They almost pulled off another stunner, as Devante Hill's 3-pointer with 2:21 left in the third quarter gave Wagner a 38-35 lead.
But Cedar Hill followed with a 10-0 run.
Glover, a Utah signee, led Cedar Hill with 19 points, eight rebounds and six blocks.
Clarkson led Wagner with 19 points and helped the T-birds claw back. He hit a 3-pointer with 39 seconds left to cut Cedar Hill's lead to one. After Cedar Hill made one of two free throws, Devante Hill, who finished with eight, tied the game.
And Milson got his perfect moment.
“Our kids did everything they could,” Wagner coach Clifton Ellis said. “They just went out and made a great shot.”
You didn't have to be around Wagner boys basketball coach Clifton Ellis very long during his playing days to appreciate his commitment to improve every time he stepped on the court.
Whether it was at Roosevelt, where he started at point guard as a 15-year-old sophomore, Temple Junior College or Southwest Texas State, Ellis always was the first player to step on the floor for practice. And the last to leave.
“It didn't take me long to realize the guys I was going up against had a lot more talent than I did,” Ellis said this week. “I knew I had to work harder because I didn't have the natural talent they had.”
Truth be told, Ellis was a pretty good player himself. While he didn't have great physical skills, he was a heady point guard who was like a coach on the floor.
“I always enjoyed the game within the game, the preparation,” Ellis said.
There was a reason for such focus and discipline, and it transcended Ellis' iron will to win and his love for hoops.
An only child of Army parents, Ellis grew up in a home that stressed responsibility, accountability and discipline in every aspect of life.
“A lot of kids nowadays might want to rebel against that discipline, that structure, but Clifton never did,” Jimmy Littleton, Ellis' coach at Roosevelt, said Thursday. “Because of that upbringing, he was a no-nonsense type of player and a great leader.”
Ellis has demonstrated the same qualities as a coach, leading Wagner to the state tournament in only its third varsity season. The Thunderbirds, who lost to Madison in the regional finals last year, play Cedar Hill in the Class 5A semifinals tonight at the Erwin Center in Austin.
The berth in the state tournament represents a breakthrough for Ellis, a senior on the Roosevelt team that lost a 92-91 heartbreaker to eventual state champion East Central in the 1995 Region IV-5A final.
“I've thought about that game a lot through the years, and quite a bit before the regional tournament last week,” said Ellis, 31.
Wagner beat McAllen 84-65 in the semifinals before routing Southwest 85-54 for the regional championship.
“I'm glad it wasn't close because I don't know if I could have handled another close regional final,” Ellis said. “Personally, it's a little bit of a relief to get over the hump.”
Temple Junior College fell in the regional final in Ellis' sophomore season, and SWT lost to UTSA in the Southland Conference tournament championship when Ellis was a senior.
All that is now ancient history to Ellis, who started his high school coaching career as an assistant at South San Antonio in 2000. He went to Judson as an assistant a year later, serving on Mike Wacker's staff four seasons before moving to Wagner in 2005.
“The great thing about Clifton is that he does it the right way,” Wacker said. “He coaches for the right reasons, helping these kids become better people.”
Ellis is as demanding of his players as his parents, Lawrence and Gayle Ellis, both retired Army staff sergeants, were of him.
“I got my work ethic from my parents,” Ellis said. “On the job or around the house, they were always working.”
As he prepares for fatherhood — he and his wife, Aletha, are expecting their first child in October — Ellis looks forward to a fuller life.
And more work.