Wade E. Miller Gym faded into history Friday night as D’Marco Howard created some of his own.
The Hamilton High School junior guard poured in a career-high 28 points as Big Blue outlasted Middletown 64-58 in the last varsity boys basketball game at the Middies’ storied gym.
“It was definitely fun,” said Howard, who added seven rebounds and three steals. “The crowd was getting into it. Some people in their student section were talking trash, so I had to just go out there and do my thing, let my game talk.”
It was a raucous evening of Butler County rivalry hoops at the sold-out Miller. Both teams also kicked off Greater Miami Conference play.
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Middletown brought back a number of its basketball greats, including Archie Aldridge, Jerry Lucas and Vincent Edwards, to witness the event.
On Saturday, the Middies (1-2) will play their first game in the brand-new Wade E. Miller Arena at the high school, facing Lima Senior (2-0) at 7:30 p.m.
“To have all those guys come back was so meaningful,” Middletown coach Darnell Hoskins said. “The level of appreciation that our program has for those guys … man, we’re forever indebted. The memories that you take away closing down this building will forever be cemented in history. I think people will remember where they were the night we closed this building down.
“I don’t want one loss to dumb down the enthusiasm for our new building. You’ve got to have a real short-term memory. We’re going to get up early in the morning and we’re going to get war ready for Lima Senior to open up our building hopefully in the right manner.”
Aaron Jones had a career-best 19 points and Jawunn Bailey added 17 for the Middies, who played through 17 turnovers and took Big Blue down to the wire, even after HHS grabbed a 60-48 lead with 3:25 left.
Jones said it will be an honor to play the first varsity boys game in the new arena, but Friday’s finale won’t be forgotten.
“It was very emotional, just a historic environment. It was fun for the most part,” said Jones, a senior guard. “In the beginning, it was more jittery, nerve-wracking. I’ve never played in front of that many people. It was a good experience, though.”
Hamilton coach Sean Van Winkle expected a tight game and got one.
“You had two historic basketball programs that really tried to represent their city, and I think both represented well,” Van Winkle said. “Hats off to their athletic administration. This was an incredibly organized night. I’m glad our kids were a part of it.
“I think there were a lot of jitters on both ends tonight, but the crowd was incredible. The Hamilton folks were nuts. I couldn’t even hear.”
Jaylen Robinson tossed in 21 points for Big Blue, who improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2001-02 season.
Robinson and Howard combined for 25 of Hamilton’s 34 second-half points. Jones collected 11 points in the fourth stanza and got the Middies within 62-58 on a stickback with 56.1 seconds left.
“I was just trying to get my team back in it,” Jones said of his late flurry of points. “Obviously, it wasn’t enough.”
Middletown missed the front end of the bonus with 19.3 on the clock, and Robinson sealed the win for HHS by sinking two free throws with 8.3 ticks remaining.
“Our guys are learning how to win right now, and each game we’re getting a little bit better at it,” Van Winkle said. “You can just see the poise, like D’Marco driving the ball to the rim instead of just freezing up.
“D’Marco could be one of the best players in our league. We’ve got to continue to push him every single day. He’s extremely athletic, he’s very hard to guard, he does a lot of good things. And people don’t understand he’s a great defender.”
Howard said he was simply taking advantage of the scoring opportunities he saw.
“The lane was wide open, so I just kept taking it to the basket,” Howard said. “Easy points. You might as well take them.”
Big Blue committed just eight turnovers and converted 14 of 16 foul shots. Both teams shot 42 percent from the floor, and Middletown was 11 of 17 at the line.
KeiAunte Powell tallied eight points for the Middies. Jones had eight boards and three blocks.
“We got beat by a better team. They looked like the more veteran ballclub. They have been through the rigors and the wars,” Hoskins said. “Our team played exactly like I thought it would. Our inexperience and our youth reared its ugly head at times. Then we made plays that shocked me sometimes.
“We’ve got to learn from these experiences and take the education away from them. I’m extremely proud of the resilience we showed because several times in that game we could’ve rolled over.
“A lot of times with a young basketball team, you can’t judge maturity by wins and losses. You can judge it by how hard you’re playing, turning the ball over less, getting back on defense better. Those are things that matter right now. I’m not worried about being great in December and January. Let’s trust the process and be better in February and March when it counts.”
Jones said Middletown is looking forward to the rematch at HHS on Jan. 12.
“We’re going to feel this one for a long time since this is the last game in this gym,” Jones said. “When we go to Hamilton, that’s what we’re going to remember.”
Van Winkle is becoming something of an expert on closing other schools’ gyms down with a loss. He was Lakota West’s head coach in 2010 when the Firebirds beat Big Blue in the last game in their old gym.
The Big Blue coach said he was excited to see former Middies like Edwards and Lucas. He called Edwards “the best player in the GMC since I’ve been coaching in it.”
“And I haven’t seen Jerry Lucas lately,” Van Winkle said. “He still looks like he could probably score 50 a game.”
HHS will resume conference play at home Tuesday against Sycamore.
HAMILTON (3-0, 1-0 GMC): Jaylen Robinson 6 8 21, Bryan Henderson 1 0 2, Cameron Benson 1 0 2, D’Marco Howard 11 5 28, Kurtis Reid 2 0 4, Trey Robinson 2 0 4, Daveon Williams 1 1 3. Totals: 24-14-64
MIDDLETOWN (1-2, 0-1 GMC): KeiAunte Powell 3 0 8, Aaron Jones 6 4 19, Jawunn Bailey 5 7 17, Chris Stallworth 2 0 4, Blake Marshall 2 0 4, Shandon Morris 2 0 4, Keion Williams 1 0 2. Totals: 21-11-58
3-pointers: H 2 (J. Robinson, Howard), M 5 (Jones 3, Powell 2)