His team had just lost by four points to rival Licking. But Houston Tigers coach Dustin Kirkman was pleased with the way his young players had fought against a team that has been much more successful this season.

“I told them, ‘First and foremost, I’m proud of you for your effort,'” Kirkman said following the Tigers’ 48-44 loss Tuesday inside a full Hiett Gymnasium. “‘You got after it, and that’s where it starts.'”

With two freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup and without the services of leading scorer Curry Van Horn, the Tigers faced a tough challenge against Licking. The Wildcats have beaten state-ranked Stoutland and led Willow Springs — ranked fourth in Class 3 — by 17 points before eventually losing.

Houston nearly pulled off an unlikely victory. The Tigers rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit and led 40-36 on a pair of Weston Walker free throws with 3:46 remaining. But Licking scored 12 of the next 14 points to squeak out the victory.

Walker hit all three of Houston’s 3-pointers and finished with a team-best 18 points. Freshman Devin Coulter scored 10.

Ben Denbow scored 10 of his game-high 19 points in the fourth quarter for Licking.

Walker buried a triple from the left wing and converted a left-handed layin on the next possession to pull the Tigers even at 23-all in the third.

“We’ve wanted Weston to look more for his shot all year,” Kirkman said. “With Curry gone, now he’s forced to. Kudos to him because he stepped up and had a pretty good game.”

After Josh Hood’s three-point play gave the Wildcats a 31-30 lead entering the fourth, Walker buried a 3-pointer on the Tigers’ opening possession and Coulter banked in a short jumper to put Houston ahead by four.

The Tigers’ lead was still four points before Licking’s late rally. Denbow scored seven points during the spurt.

“They are starting to see how important each and every possession on offense and defense are,” Kirkman said. “You’re not going to always do everything right, but you’ve got to strive and want to for your teammates.”

On Friday, freshman Aaron Cantrell had a career-best 18 points in a 85-52 loss to Eminence.

Box scores

VARSITY

Tuesday’s game

Licking 16 7 8 17 — 48

Houston 11 5 14 14 — 44

LICKING (48) — Jake Hood 2. Ben Denbow 19. Wyatt Porter 3. Dustin Sullins 4. Dylan Vestal 4. Josh Hood 14. Austin Pursifull 2. FG 18. FT 10-18. F 18. (3-pointers: Denbow, JoHood)

HOUSTON (44) — Aaron Cantrell 1. Devin Coulter 10. Weston Walker 18. Cory Scheets 4. Rodney Preheim 6. Jacob Kelley 3. Dalton Pokorny 2. FG 17. FT 7-10. F 18. (3-pointers: Walker 3)

Friday’s game

Houston 17 17 12 6 — 52

Eminence 25 20 30 10 — 85

HOUSTON (52) — Aaron Cantrell 18. Devin Coulter 6. Weston Walker 12. Cory Scheets 11. Rodney Preheim 8. Dalton Pokorny 2. FG 20. FT 8-12. F 14. (3-pointers: Walker 4, Cantrell)

EMINENCE (85) — Jesse Lacey 12. Allan Brewer 13. Cole Keeling 17. Hunter Adams 13. Zae Alcorn 14. James Ennis 16. FG 32. FT 11-14. F 10. (3-pointers: Alcorn 4, Keeling 3, Adams 3, Lacey)

JUNIOR VARSITY

Tuesday’s game

Licking 13 13 20 10 — 56

Houston 8 6 2 0 — 16

HOUSTON (16) — Nathaniel Alkire 4. Jacob Kelley 12. FG 7. FT 1-3. F 6. (3-pointers: Kelley)

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