Gavin Naquin

Gavin Naquin (5) and the Cleburne Yellow Jackets will face the No. 1-ranked Lancaster Tigers in the Class 5A bi-district playoffs Tuesday. Lancaster is ranked No. 18 in ESPN’s national high school basketball rankings.

As the 2019-20 Texas high school boys basketball playoffs tip off early this week, no team is facing a more daunting task in bi-district than the Cleburne Yellow Jackets.

After winning their regular-season finale at Waco University on Tuesday, the Jackets clinched the No. 4 seed out of District 14-5A to set up a bi-district battle against Lancaster (31-1). 

Not only are the Tigers the No. 1-ranked team in Class 5A in Texas, but Lancaster is one of the top-ranked teams throughout the entire country. ESPN has Lancaster at No. 18 in its Top 25 national high school rankings.

Knowing the beast they’re about to face, Cleburne Coach Jeff Bush said there was no point in trying to hide from his players how good Lancaster is.

“The biggest thing is we’ve been honest with them,” Bush said. “We’ve told them they have two Power 5 high-level DI guards. We talk about how fast they are. We’ve been honest with them that if we want to be successful, we’ve got to do things differently. So we’ll change some things up offensively and defensively. And we’ve given them some comparisons, like how they’re going to be like Red Oak — but faster, which is kind of hard for them to believe. But our focus is to win the game.”

Despite Cleburne’s overall 9-23 record, the Jackets have been playing their best ball of the season in district play, led by seniors Nash Mosoba and Blane McElroy, with contributions from senior guard Isaak guard Cunningham, senior forward Jake Dobbins, junior post Gavin Naquin, senior forward Tommy De La Rosa, senior guard Laukuk Lanki, and junior post Carson Harris.

When the Jackets step on the floor Tuesday, they’ll be facing their toughest challenge of the season, without question.

“This is the best team that I’ve seen this year, period,” Bush said. “This will be the toughest test we’ve had. They’re the only team in Texas ranked in ESPN’s Top 25. No matter what classification, that shows this is the best team in Texas. There’s time you watch them on film and think, ‘That kid’s pretty fast,’ then you see them live and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, he’s fast.’ They’re so quick getting up and down the floor, that if you don’t sprint getting back they’ll blow right past you and score.”

The Tigers are led by senior guard Mike Miles, a TCU signee who has eclipsed the 2,000-point mark, and junior point guard Wade Taylor, a four-star recruit who holds offers from the likes of Baylor, Florida State, TCU, and Texas A&M, among others. Senior guard Marco Foster, an Oklahoma Christian University commit, is Lancaster’s other top-3 leading scorer.

Bush said Miles and Taylor along with the Tigers’ overall team speed are the top reasons why Lancaster is so tough to compete against.

“Those two things and they have a really good shooter,” Bush said. “No. 22 [Foster] can hit shots with hands in his face. He creates a lot of space for those two guys. You can tell they’re well-coached, especially defensively, whether they’re in man-to-man defense or pressing with a 1-2-2 or when they do full-court man. They’ve shown the ability to get in few different types of half-court zones, too, depending on who they’re playing.”

Lancaster averages 83 points per game, and the Tigers have reached the 100-point mark in three of their past seven outings. 

For Cleburne to have a chance, Bush said they’ll have to take care of the ball, rebound consistently, and avoid playing a fast-tempo game.

“No. 1 is we have to eliminate live ball turnovers,” Bush said. “If we get caught with a travel or double dribble or backcourt violation, we can live with those because we can set our defense. If we throw them the ball, and they steal it, it’s going to be a long night. ... That’s first thing is take care of the ball. No. 2 is be tough on the interior. We’ve got to limit it to one shot. We’re going to have to draw some charges to make them think twice about going in there at full speed. We’ve got to force them to beat us from the outside. Even though they’re more than capable of doing that, that’s what it’s going to take to give us a chance on the defensive end. 

“And we’re going to have to do a good job executing on offense. The higher that score goes, the less the chance we have. If we keep it in the 60s and 70s, we’re going to give ourselves a chance. We’ve got to keep the score down, which is really difficult. Every team in that district had that theory and they all gave up 100 to them.”

On Feb. 14, Cleburne had arguably its best performance of the season against No. 12 Red Oak — a team Bush used as a comparable for Lancaster. The Jackets gave the Hawks all they could handle before Red Oak came away with a 70-63 win, which is proof Cleburne can hang with talented and faster teams if all goes right.

Lancaster won its 12 district games by an average margin of 52.1 points per game. The smallest margin of victory Lancaster had in district play was a 71-41 win over Kaufman on Feb. 11. Lancaster’s only defeat of the season was a 69-47 loss vs. Prolific Prep (California), which is ranked No. 13 in the nation by ESPN.

Tipoff between the Jackets and Tigers is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday from Mansfield Legacy High School.

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