The Howard basketball season can be broken up into a couple of holiday times that have led to the Hustlin' Tigers' third straight state-tournament appearance.
Christmas season brought them a new mentality, with a new commitment to team defense as well as a change in both the attitude and perspective of the overall group.
However, when the 21-9 Hustlin' Tigers found out they will take the floor today in the state quarterfinals against Liberty Tech, it was a bad case of "Groundhog Day."
The teams are scheduled to tip off at 12:45 p.m. EDT at the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro. The Crusaders (28-6) have ended Howard's season in the past two state tournaments.
"We're tired of playing them," Howard senior captain Anthony Smith said. "We're tired of losing to them, but to play them three years in a row -- that just means that we have to bring it and play our hearts out, but we'd like to get this monkey off our back."
Coach Walter McGary, who has guided Howard to five state appearances in his six seasons, envisioned this Tigers team being competitive, and they're coming close to meeting his expectations.
They have won five of their last six games and are 15-5 since Christmas break.
"Defensively, I'll put this team at the top of the teams I've had," McGary said. "When we want to, we can play. Offensively, though, we still need more work, and that comes from the kids wanting it.
"This team is the most coachable team I've had. Since Christmas, their attitude and perspective had changed and they're committed to playing team defense. As long as we do that, that'll overcome a lot of flaws."
When asked about playing Liberty a third straight season, McGary joked that "this time we've got more experience than them." He challenged the team during the Christmas break, and Smith in particular, to come together more as opposed to playing individual ball.
"It made us stronger," Smith said. "People were saying at that time that we were sorry, and we had a losing record, so to a lot of people we weren't expected to be here. That meeting brought us closer together.
"It means a lot for us to be at state now since so many people thought we'd be bad."