The 23rd Annual Durant Lion Classic opens a three-day run at the DHS Gymnasium on Thursday with one of the most balanced fields in recent history in both brackets.
Defending champ Norman and last year’s runner-up Westmoore both return on the boys side as do girls’ defending titlist Deer Creek and runner-up Putnam North.
Each of the defending champs is an early favorite but will have plenty of challenges along the way.
In the girls’ bracket action tips at 11 a.m. Thursday with Deer Creek, which opened the season ranked second in Class 5A facing off with Hugo.
Deer Creek is led by senior Ashley Gibson, who was third in the tournament in scoring a year ago while capturing all-tournament honors. She is one of the top players in the class this season.
Long-time tournament entrant Putnam North is in the second girls’ contest pitted against Norman North in an all-Class 6A showdown at 1:40.
Putnam North has a terrific playmaking guard in athletic junior Sidney Carolina and will be a nice contrast to high-scoring Norman North junior Bri Kuestersteffen, who was the tournament leading scorer in 2011 with 46 points.
Two new tournament combatants face off in the third game of the bracket at 4:20 with Class 6A Mustang challenging Springdale, Arkansas.
Mustang welcomes back a solid core of experience from a 6A state tournament team and could have the most size of any team in the bracket.
In the final girls’ contest at 7 p.m. Durant tangles with another relatively inexperienced squad in Westmoore.
Durant will try to get things back on the right track after some early struggles while the Lady Jaguars continue to break in an almost entirely new cast after graduating all five starters from a 10-win club.
On the boys’ side of the bracket another power-packed lineup is on tap, including the opening game at 12:20 when Class 3A’s fifth-rated Hugo battles Westmoore, which returns a pair of terrific talents in 6-4 junior Tripp Fuller and 6-2 senior Trey Ayala, who each averaged double figures last year.
The second game with a 3 p.m. start in the bracket features athletic Deer Creek against the Dallas Home School.
Deer Creek has a solid crew back as well with seniors Kevin Caudill and Joel Blumenthal sparking the Antlers.
Host Durant will be featured in the 5:40 opening round contest against fellow Class 5A mate Shawnee.
The Lions recently snapped a 34-game losing skid and will take on a Wolves’ squad that is looking to replace several key performers from a season ago.
Opening round action wraps up with Norman facing off with Denison, Texas at 8:20.
The Tigers have a solid leader in senior Sam Blodgett, who had a nice performance in last year’s Classic.
Second round play is set for Friday with the final round beginning at 10 a.m. on Saturday.