PLANT CITY — It was far from the start that first-year Durant basketball coach Trent Tice envisioned.
Spoto High outscored the Durant team by five in the fourth quarter and the Cougars lost 54-52 in Tice's debut. Coming off a 21-win season, the Cougars found themselves 0-1 after losing to a pedestrian Spoto team.
"I beat myself up pretty good after that one," Tice said.
Tice, who had coached the Cougars' junior varsity the past four seasons, stewed for a bit. But with only one day off before Durant's second game of the season, there was little time to wallow.
"I got down on myself after that first game, with it being my first game as a varsity coach," he said. "But looking back, it was a great wake-up call."
If it was indeed an alarm, the bell sounded loud and clear for the Cougars. Since the loss to Spoto, Durant ripped off 10 consecutive games before losing to Newsome on Tuesday. The Cougars are proving to be one of the most dangerous teams in Hillsborough County. During the winning streak, Durant (10-2 as of press time) won all six of its district games. The Cougars also retained the Ron Frost City Championship Trophy against crosstown rival Plant City. More recently, they captured the Jesuit Invitational just before the winter break.
"I thought we'd have a good team and get off to a good start," senior guard Jeff Thomas said. "Just not this good."
Tice said he has kept the same philosophy on offense as his predecessor, adding just a few wrinkles to the defense. Although Tice feels the Cougars have been most consistent on the defensive end of the court, Durant has also found myriad ways to win ball games.
"They've won big and won close ones," Tice said. "They've won when they were on top of their game, but more importantly, they've won when they weren't having their best night."
Tice took over for Jeff Shotwell, who resigned over the summer to spend more time with his family. Tice said Shotwell left a solid foundation behind, priming the Cougars for a smooth transition.
"He left this team in great shape, and they all understand the work ethic he implemented," Tice said. "This team was ready to go."
The play of junior wing Andre Nation is another reason the Cougars flourish on the court. After leading the Cougars in scoring at 13 points per game last season, Nation has upped that mark to 24 points per game this year. The 6-foot-3 swingman, who is receiving interest from a number of Division I schools, has improved his mid-range jumper over the summer and has been Durant's go-to scoring threat.
"He can step back and hit the three (pointer) if guys play off him and blow by them if they try to get up on him," Tice said. "But he's also added the ability to jump stop and hit that 15-footer as well."
With exceptional length, Tice said Nation plays "bigger than what he is." And Nation, whose name is as smooth as his game, doesn't just fill up the scoring column. He also leads the Cougars in rebounds (5.2 per game), steals (3.0 per game) and blocks (2.7 per game).
"His arms are so long that he's tough defensively and can man up on bigger guys," Tice said. "He plays the wing for us, but he can also bring the ball up. He's very versatile."
Also back from last year's starters are seniors Jordan Mitchell and Thomas. Mitchell is strong on the defensive boards while Thomas, an instinctive court general, paces Durant in assists (3.4 per game).
"(Thomas) is one of those guys off the court who makes sure guys are at conditioning and lifting," Tice said. "And on the court, he runs the show."
Now that the season-opening loss seems like a distant memory and with district starting in just over a month, Thomas said the Cougars have plenty to anticipate.
"I think we came into (the Spoto) game overconfident," he said. "(The loss) made us mad, but it also helped to get our attention and stay focused."
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]