It's an ideal situation for a coach in his first year: players buying in, the dirty work getting done.
It's why Ardmore coach Kevin Kelly wasn't upset with his senior point guard. Yes, Kelly sat Patrice Bennett for Ardmore's game against Duncan on Tuesday, but it wasn't for lack of hustle or anything detrimental to the team.
In the consolation final of the Shawnee Invitational, Bennett picked up a second technical foul diving for a loose ball in the closing seconds, playing an aggressive style the Tigers have lacked in the past few years.
If anything, Bennett was just personifying the new look of Ardmore girls basketball.
"The referees saw it one way, I saw it a different way," Kelly said. "Earlier in the game, they had already given two (technical fouls) to El Reno. I think that might have been one of those opportunities when it was maybe our turn. I didn't see much flagrant about it."
Bennett's effort is apparently contageous — the Tigers played the same way without her on Tuesday. Ardmore beat Duncan 49-30 with a relentless defensive game that had them on the floor for loose balls and chasing down steals from behind despite being up more than 20 points in the third quarter.
"I was proud of them," Bennett said of the win against Duncan. "Tee (Taylor) stepped up, she did really good. They did really good."
Ardmore's success is a product of the effort on the court. The Tigers are 10-9 this season, with more wins than in the previous two seasons combined.
Ardmore is currently ranked 16th in Class 5A, a long way from a one-win campaign a year ago.
"The pieces are falling together a little bit better," Kelly said. "We don't want to peak right now, but I can see I'm not going to have to put someone in and we'll drop off. And that's awesome.
"The three post rotation with Kyla (Stapleton), Rickkia (Manuel) and Kerra Day has been really good. And Kevy (Davis) has really come around for us."
Regardless of what happens off the court, junior forward Rickkia Manuel said the Tigers are more together as a team on the court this season.
"It's much better. It's more fun winning," Manuel said. "But there's always a catch. If we don't keep doing what we're doing, we'll be off the map.
"We have to do the same thing we're doing to get to where we want to be, and that's to state."
Bennett's effort didn't go unnoticed at the Shawnee Invitational, as the 5-2 senior earned All-Tournament Team honors, averaging close to 23 points and 4 assists in three games. She said her late-game mix-up was just that — a mix up — unintentional and all in the flow of the game.
Page 2 of 2 - "I was running for the ball and she had her arm on my arm. I really wasn't trying to (foul)," Bennett said.
"Without hustling, without defense, you really can't win the game."
Ardmore did win the consolation final, 54-51, and Kelly said it was his decision along with the school administration to sit Bennett. She'll be back next week against No. 2 Carl Albert, and Kelly knows that the Tigers have to play all-out like their senior leader in order to be successful.
The remaining schedule won't allow Ardmore to win on just talent. The Tigers have a key stretch coming up, with home games against Carl Albert and Lawton MacArthur, and road games against Bishop McGuinness and McAlester to close out the regular season.
Ardmore is 2-3 against those teams this season, with wins against Bishop McGuinness (51-50 in overtime) and McAlester (71-62).
"We've got to play the game a certain way," Kelly said. "We just can't roll the ball out."
That's been the big difference: when the ball rolls free, you can count on all of the Ardmore players pouncing.
"We play together, we play hard," senior guard Destinee Howell said. "We're pretty speedy, so usually we can beat other teams that way athletically.
"Play together, play hard and usually you come out with the win."
Erik K. Horne