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State pressure gets to Garland Naaman Forest

AUSTIN, Texas -- There was obvious disappointment in the faces of the members of the Garland Naaman Forest basketball team. Disappointment but also a sense of accomplishment.

What many will notice in Friday’s Class 5A state semifinal is the final score: Flower Mound Marcus 59, Naaman Forest 34. What those same people will forget are three specific points.

No. 1: Marcus is the defending 5A state champion for a reason.

No. 2: Marcus is the state’s top-ranked team for a reason.

No. 3: This was Naaman Forest’s first time in a limelight this big. And if head coach Jeff Clarkson has his way, it won’t be his team’s last.

Naaman Forest simply ran into a determined Marcus team -- one that now is a state-tournament veteran, making its third consecutive trip. Even with stars Demarcus Holland and Texas-signee Prince Ibeh, the Rangers couldn’t find answers for Marcus, particularly McDonald’s All-American and Oklahoma State-bound Marcus Smart.

“It was tough. They played real well,” said Ibeh, who said he enjoyed playing at the Frank Erwin Center, his future college home court. “I just wish it would have gone differently. I think the stage of it all kind of brought us jitters.”

The anxiety definitely showed throughout the game. The Rangers only shot 25.5 percent for the night, making 13 of 51 attempts. Naaman Forest (29-8) also missed 8 of 12 free throws. Holland, Ibeh and Kent High -- Naaman Forest’s top three scorers -- combined for 18 points.

Marcus, on the other hand, made 47 percent (21 of 45) of its shots and all 13 of its free throw attempts. Smart finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds, and he made all eight of his free throws.

Clarkson said his team came out tentatively when it should have been more aggressive. Naaman Forest settled for long jumpers rather than attacking the basket. It didn’t keep Marcus out on the paint, as the Marauders scored more than half of their points (30) inside the burnt orange-colored rectangle.

Chalk it up to playing on the state’s biggest high school basketball platform, in front of 8,245 screaming fans -- many cheering for the Marauders. Also, chalk it up to Marcus’ bread-and-butter defense, which has helped it win 38 of 40 games this season.

“They did the things we knew they were going to do, and we knew they were coming, but they are all great players.” Clarkson said of Marcus. “Coach [Danny Henderson] does a great job in getting them the ball where they need it, and they made great shots.”

As Naaman Forest accepted its semifinalist medals, very few tears were shed. Partly because of the respect for Marcus being the better team Friday, and additionally because it was playing with house money. Few expected the Rangers to advance deep in Region II. Fewer expected them to beat DeSoto in the regional title game.

In making its first trip to state, Naaman Forest silenced a lot of critics and solidified its reputation as a team to watch. Next year should be interesting, as the Rangers return five players from a senior-laden roster.

“Obviously, our guys had a great year, and we wanted to perform better,” Clarkson said. “This senior group brought our program to a different level. They’re dedicated kids on and off the court, and they work hard on their game. They came together as a team this year, and that was really the difference.

“We’ve had some talent, but these guys grew up and gelled to have that success. Unfortunately, we had to play Marcus [Friday]. They brought their A game and took it to us.”

Damon Sayles covers Midlands recruiting for ESPN Recruiting. He can be reached at dsaylesespn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DamonSayles