L.D. Bell pushes to playoffs without its top player

HURST, Texas -- Here's the definition of a slow start for Marshall Henderson, the kinetic senior guard for L.D. Bell High School (Hurst, Texas).

Henderson and the Class 5A Blue Raiders opened the season against Southwest (Fort Worth, Texas), the defending 4A state runner-up. After three periods, Henderson already had equaled his 2007-08 scoring average with 25 points to help Bell to a 67-63 lead.

Then he finally picked up his game and matched those 25 points in the fourth quarter. The Blue Raiders outscored Southwest 35-14 to win 102-77.

The game served notice that Bell could be a force in the 5A state race and Henderson, an early signee with Utah, wouldn't disappoint in a high school career that already included two district MVP selections.

Bell was cruising along this season in District 5-5A, winning its first eight games and possibly headed for a 14-game sweep. But on Jan. 30, Bell coach Willie Henderson (Marshall's father) told the team that Marshall had violated a school rule and would be lost to the Raiders for three weeks -- the final six games of the district season.

Marshall will be eligible to return just in time for the first round of the playoffs, which Bell (21-8 overall, 9-3 in district) already has qualified for. But the goal of sweeping district play disappeared in the first game he sat out. Even winning the district has become a struggle. In the four games since Marshall's departure, the Blue Raiders have lost three and salvaged a win in overtime.

Their three-game district lead is gone. They now are tied with Fossil Ridge (Keller, Texas) going into Friday's meeting between the two at Bell and only a game ahead of third-place Central (Keller).

"We just have to all step up individually and do different things that weren't asked of us before," senior center Josh Mauro said.

Said Willie Henderson: "Without our best player, it's kind of like sheep without the shepherd. I've been telling them the last week I think I believe in them winning more than they do. We've got a good team without him. With him, when we're clicking on all cylinders, we're one of the best teams in the state."

Marshall is staying at home for each of the six games, receiving text messages from his mother to learn how the team is doing.

"It gets intense sometimes," Marshall said after a recent practice. "I have to call her at the end of the games if they're close. I can barely hear her through the crowd in the background."

Intense is a word often used to describe Marshall. "He's very much a competitor," Willie Henderson said, "sometimes more than he should be. But you'd rather have somebody who's extremely competitive and bring them down a notch than those who are passive. You're never going to get them to be competitive."

At 6-foot-2, Marshall is a terrific combination of a deft ball handler and a deadly shooter from all ranges. He's among the state's most prolific 3-point shooters and can drive for a dunk. He's averaging 25.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.

Last season, Bell needed to win its regular-season finale over MacArthur (Irving, Texas) to finish fourth in the district and qualify for the playoffs. Marshall responded with 43 points in an 80-70 victory.

This season, he has had two 40-point games in losses to 5A heavyweights North Crowley and DeSoto, in addition to the 50-point performance against Southwest. He appeared headed to a 40-pointer in a holiday tournament game against 4A power Wheatley (Houston) but was ejected late in the third quarter for receiving his second technical foul. On the second technical, he was elbowed by an opposing player during a dead-ball period and responded by flipping the ball at the player.

"It was a game-changer," Willie Henderson said. "We cut the lead to six, had all the momentum. Wheatley couldn't stop him. We played the last 10 minutes without him. Teams will do that deliberately, trying to get him to react. That's the part he's got to learn to control."

Following the ejection against Wheatley, Marshall sat out Bell's next game, a 10-point loss to 4A Dunbar (Fort Worth).

"Sometimes, I just … I don't know what I think," Marshall said. "I just do stupid stuff."

Marshall is an honor student who chose his college by giving his own test of sorts. He already had decided to go out of state and had offers from Bradley, Gonzaga, Marquette, Notre Dame, Stanford and Utah. With the help of frequent flier miles from Mom (she works for Fort Worth-based American Airlines), Marshall made campus visits and asked a series of questions at each stop. Utah compiled the highest score.

During Marshall's current absence, senior guard Richie Sambay is taking command of the Bell offense and responded with nine assists in this past Friday's overtime win over Colleyville Heritage.

"I have to make smarter decisions," Sambay said. "I take care of the ball more. I just have to pick up where Marshall left off as far as scoring-wise and get everybody involved."

In that win, the Blue Raiders received 16 points off the bench -- and five free throws in the final minute -- from junior Baylor Southard.

"It showed our team, showed our school, that our supporting players are capable of winning," said Mauro, a 6-6, 230-pound post who will play defensive end for Stanford's football team.

"Twenty-seven games into the season, it's kind of late to be changing gears," Willie Henderson said. "We just have to be more selective with our shots. Things that we got from our fast break and our secondary break we're not getting now, so we're having to go to other options. Points are dropping off. We've played good D all year; I just told 'em we've got to be better."

Marshall continues to practice with the team and has added extra conditioning work in an effort to account for the two games he's missing each week.

"I need to work on defense, out guarding the point guard," he said. "I'll be fine."

If Bell drops in the standings, that will mean facing a higher-seeded opponent in the first round of the playoffs. The Blue Raiders beat Fossil Ridge by nine in their first meeting, with Henderson scoring 29.

"We'd hate to lose the district championship because of ourselves," Willie Henderson said. "Maybe we'll pull it out."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.