There was a bittersweet feeling shared by the Dripping Springs Tigers as they walked off the Northside Sports Gym floor in San Antonio Saturday.
Players and coaches realized the significance of becoming only the second team in school history to reach the regional final playoff round.
But the magic that fueled Dripping Springs’ deepest playoff run in 31 years ran out. Tiger shooting woes in the second half helped the Corpus Christi Veterans Memorial Eagles roll to a 58-42 win and the Class 5A, Region IV title.
While the Tigers’ season ended one step short of the state tournament, players held their heads high, understanding how far they had come.
“I think everyone is proud. I think that’s why most of us have our heads held high,” Dripping Springs senior Nick Breen said. “We’re a three seed and we were able to come in and make it this far.”
Dripping Springs’ second half scoring struggles centered on Veterans Memorial’s ability to stifle Tiger junior forward Richard Milliron, who was fed the ball in the paint with regularity in the first half.
Dripping Springs trailed 15-10 after the first quarter, but rallied with the assistance of Milliron to take a 29-26 lead at halftime.
Tiger head coach Craig Swannack said Milliron is “automatic” and that as soon as they got him in motion, “it was going to be good things for us.”
Milliron said he took advantage of minimal coverage in the paint, allowing him to assert his presence and score ten points and snag six rebounds in the first 16 minutes of the game.
Milliron finished with a double double, scoring a team high 14 points and 11 boards.
“Most of the teams we have played, they’ve doubled, tripled (teamed) or put four guys on me. I’m not sure if they had film, but they weren’t putting as many people,” Milliron said. “I was able to score most of the time.”
All of that changed in the second half.
Veterans Memorial’s defense began to collapse the paint and force Dripping Springs to shoot from the perimeter.
Dripping Springs, however, was unable to find consistent offense elsewhere. Adding to the Tigers’ trouble was an Eagle defense that amped up the pressure, which led to nine Tiger turnovers in the second half.
Veterans Memorial fought back to take a 38-36 lead entering the fourth quarter.
“Honestly, we tried to get it going in the second half, but we couldn’t seem to find the rhythm we had in the first,” Swannack said. “Credit to Veterans Memorial to adjust and figure out a way to keep us from getting easy buckets.”
Tiger shooting woes extended into the final quarter as Dripping Springs was unable to score a point within the first four-plus minutes.
Dripping Springs’ struggles allowed the Eagles to swoop in and take control of the game. They did so by attacking the Tigers, drawing fouls and successfully hitting their free throws down the stretch.
Veterans Memorial scored 16 of their 20 fourth quarter points from the charity stripe.
Leading the Eagles was senior guard Peyton Smith, who scored 21 points and eight rebounds in the game. Breen said the Tigers tried to force Smith to take contested layups, but he was adept at drawing fouls.
“He was definitely skilled, so we didn’t want to give him good looks,” Milliron said. “We forced the guards to take contested layups, but they got too many shots off and we kept fouling them.”
While a trip to state wasn’t meant to be, Breen, Milliron and teammates celebrated their success. Milliron said it showed how hard the Tigers worked this season.
For Swannack and the senior class, the ability to never doubt themselves helped extend a sensational run.
“This means the world to me,” Swannack said. “To watch them bless me with an incredible playoff run and a historic playoff run, I can never replay that.”