Houston freshman Devin Coulter scores two of his career-high 19 points.

Dustin Kirkman was awake until the early morning hours following his first career victory as a head coach. A thrilling win inside the gym where he once played was a moment to cherish.

Junior Jacob Kelley hit the second of two free throws with 13.7 seconds remaining and the Houston Tigers got a key defensive stop on the next possession to make Kirkman a winner in his first game inside Hiett Gymnasium.

“It’s one of those deals that you’ll cherish for a long time,” Kirkman said following the Tigers’ hard-fought 57-55 victory Monday night against Alton.

Kirkman’s tenure as head coach at his alma mater began with five straight road losses. Things changed for the better in a return to the team’s homecourt, where Kirkman was a standout player before graduating in 1999,

“I hated to start the season 0-5, but to get my first ‘W’ in our gym, it couldn’t have been any better,” Kirkman said. “That’s exactly what I wanted. I’m so proud of my kids for doing that.”

Win No. 1 certainly wasn’t easy.

There were 12 lead changes and 10 ties in a back-and-forth contest that was tight throughout. It was also physical. There were 55 combined fouls — leading to 64 free throws — and five players fouled out.

After Alton tied it at 55-all on Skyler Chronisler’s baseline jumper with 55 seconds left, the Tigers drained most of the clock before Weston Walker drove to the hole and hit Kelley under the basket. Kelley drew a foul as he put up a shot and after missing the first free throw, hit the second to put Houston ahead by one.

The Tigers forced Chronisler to take a tough jumper in the lane that missed, and Walker was fouled after securing the rebound. He made his second free throw and Alton’s desperation shot missed as time expired.

The Tigers hung on despite going 3-for-6 at the free-throw line in the last 55 seconds and 17-for-35 overall.

“We had a bit of an off night, but we made that one that mattered,” Kirkman said. “Jacob stepped up in a pretty clutch situation.”

Freshman Devin Coulter led three players in double figures with 19 points. Walker had 12 and Curry Van Horn added 11.

Coulter scored all but two of his points in the second half, including 10 of Houston’s 23 fourth-quarter points.

“I had all the faith in the world in him,” Kirkman said of Coulter. “He did exactly what myself and (assistant) coach (Willy) Walker knew he was capable of. I don’t look for anything else than that from him the rest of the year.”

Alton stretched a one-point halftime advantage to seven late in the fourth quarter, but Houston answered with a 13-4 run — highlighted by consecutive 3-pointers by Coulter and Van Horn — to set up a thrilling finish.

On Friday, Van Horn had 13 points in a 77-62 loss at Plato.

JUNIOR VARSITY: C.J. Terriot scored 11 points in the JV Tigers’ 61-26 loss Monday to Alton.

On Saturday, Gabe Pruett’s 10 points led Houston in a 56-28 loss to Plato to conclude the Norwood JV Tournament. The previous night, the Tigers lost 45-21 at Plato.

Box scores

VARSITY

Monday’s game

Alton 9 13 15 18 — 55

Houston 9 12 13 23 — 57

ALTON (55) — Mark Smith 14. Randy Ray 6. Skyler Chronisler 20. Kalon Honeycutt 5. A.J. Hodge 4. Wes Carswell 6. FG 21. FT 13-29. F 30. (3-pointers: none. Fouled out: Ray, Hodge, Carswell)

HOUSTON (57) — Curry Van Horn 11. Devin Coulter 19. Weston Walker 12. Cory Scheets 7. Rodney Preheim 5. Jacob Kelley 1. Dalton Pokorny 2. FG 19. FT 17-35. F 25. (3-pointers: Van Horn, Coulter. Fouled out: Van Horn, Preheim)

Friday’s game

Houston 14 13 16 19 — 62

Plato 23 16 20 18 — 77

HOUSTON (62) — Curry Van Horn 13. Aaron Cantrell 1. Devin Coulter 11. Weston Walker 10. Kaleb Poynter 2. Cory Scheets 4. Rodney Preheim 11. Jacob Kelley 4. Dalton Pokorny 6. (3-pointers: Van Horn 2, Coulter, Walker)

JUNIOR VARSITY

Monday’s game

Alton 17 19 20 5 — 61

Houston 6 11 6 3 — 26

HOUSTON (26) — Aaron Cantrell 7. Chance Gale 3. C.J. Terriot 11. Tanner Smith 3. Gabe Pruett 2.

Saturday’s game

Houston 10 7 2 9 — 28

Plato 22 14 12 8 — 56

HOUSTON (28) — Chance Gale. C.J. Terriot 5. Gabe Pruett 10. Tyler Best 4.

Friday’s game

Houston 12 0 6 3 — 21

Plato 31 6 2 6 — 45

HOUSTON (21) — Aaron Cantrell 6. Chance Gale 7. C.J. Terriot 2. Gabe Pruett 2. Tyler Best 4.

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