The Duncanville High School boys basketball team pulled out all the stops for its senior night. First-year head coach Neiman Ford presented the eight Panthers seniors with framed jerseys and then posed for photos with each of them and their families at midcourt. Before the team’s final home game on Tuesday, the gym’s video boards screened a 36-minute tribute to the departing players, including extended interviews with them and candid moments from their high school careers.

It all seemed befitting of Duncanville, the high school in southwest Dallas County whose powerhouse boys basketball program currently sits at number two in ESPN’s national rankings and whose gym is decorated with banners from past Texas state championship wins.

Senior Night at Duncanville has typically been a send-off, a launch point into the University Interscholastic League playoffs. (Duncanville plays in the most competitive level of UIL basketball, Class 6A.) “We always harped on the last seven,” said senior Jackson Prince, the team’s captain. “The seven playoff games.”

Not so this year, despite a lineup that includes Texas Basketball Review’s number one– and number three–ranked players in the state. (Forward Ron Holland, a University of Texas signee and the state’s top prospect in the class of 2023, is also ranked fifth nationally, according to ESPN. Guard KJ Lewis, who has committed to the University of Arizona, isn’t far behind.) Tuesday’s senior send-off was far different. It marked the end of the Panthers’ season, despite going into the evening with an overall record of 28–1 and an unbeaten record in thirteen district games—where their average margin of victory was 26.9 points.

For the first time since 2003, the Panthers won’t be participating in the playoffs, a decision that Duncanville School District superintendent released the day before the team’s first game this season. Smith delivered the bad news days after the UIL, which oversees athletic competitions at Texas public high schools, ruled that Duncanville had fielded an ineligible player last season and stripped the school of its 2021–22 state title. The body also suspended head coach David Peavy for one calendar year.

The 2022 Class 6A boys state championship plaque was sent off to McKinney High, whose Lions lost to the Panthers 69–49 in last year’s title game. Ford, Peavy’s top assistant, stepped up as the team’s interim leader. “I told them at the beginning of the season bad things happen to people, and they’re good people,” Ford said.

The Senior Night tribute video included a few seconds of footage shot back in October, as the Panthers players sat stone-faced in front of the locker room, absorbing the news of the UIL penalties. The athletes and their parents also expressed initial frustration over the Duncanville superintendent’s choice to go beyond the UIL punishment by banning the team from the 2023 postseason. After the Panthers football team had claimed the 6A Division I championship last December, Duncanville was hoping to become the first school to win state football and basketball titles in the UIL’s largest classification since . . . Duncanville in the 1998–99 school year. “At that time we were all trying to fight for the kids,” said Tarasha Holland, Ron’s mother, “but we all came to the agreement that it was best for them to just move forward.”

Traditionally, state championships are the ultimate prize in high school hoops, but Duncanville had the option of pivoting to a loftier goal this year—a national championship, as determined by outside observers. With the UIL playoffs off the table, the 2022–23 Panthers set their sights on ending the season as the country’s top-ranked boys basketball team.

“We are the definition of champions,” senior Aric Demings said. “We want to be the best at everything, and I think we’ve accomplished that goal for the last three years.” In their first three years on the team, Demings and the other Panthers seniors won three state titles. Their freshman year, Duncanville was declared one of four cochampions in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic halted competition before the semifinals; in ’21, they beat Austin Westlake for the crown, 66–53; and last season they beat the brakes off of McKinney.

If Duncanville were participating in this year’s UIL playoffs, chances are the Panthers seniors would be leaving high school as four-time state champions. “They’ve been our number one ranked team in the state from wire to wire,” said Sam Lowe of Texas Basketball Review. “In games played on the court in the last four years in the playoffs, they’re 26–0. They’d be the betting favorite.”

Holland was the only returning starter from last season’s 35–1 team. Gone were three seniors, most notably Anthony Black, the subject of the UIL’s eligibility penalty, now a starting forward for the Arkansas Razorbacks and a projected first-round pick in the 2023 NBA draft.

Duncanville embarked on an ambitious pre-district schedule this season, with multiple games against nationally ranked opponents from across the country. Their only loss came in late December, playing the fourth consecutive day in a Nike-affiliated “super team” tournament near Portland. They lost by twelve points to the tournament’s unofficial host school from West Linn, Oregon. (As of early this week, West Linn was 21–1 and ranked number 21.)

District play back in Texas provided few games that were even remotely in doubt. When Mansfield High’s Tigers traveled to Duncanville in early January, the Panthers pulled away early and the only drama was whether they’d hit 100 points. Duncanville’s lead was 98–43 as the final seconds ticked down. Sophomore Kayden Edwards, who since childhood has gone by the nickname “Bugg,” swished a three-pointer from the right corner that sent the gym into a frenzy.

Edwards, who already has more than a dozen Division I scholarship offers, indicated that night’s milestone wasn’t just something fun to talk about in class the following day. “That shot right there really made a statement to show we’re the best in the country,” Edwards said. “We know we’re built for this kind of stuff.”

There was no doubt Duncanville could surpass the 100-point mark when the outmanned Raiders from Dallas’s Skyline High came to town two weeks ago. Half of the fourth period remained when the Panthers went ahead 100–42 on a three-pointer. But it was the source of the bucket that hit the century mark that had the home crowd nearly doubled over with a combination of joy and laughter. The shot came from five-foot-eight senior Kendrick Frost, an ever-upbeat team manager. Duncanville began a tradition a few years ago of rewarding managers with a chance to suit up—Rudy in high-tops—and the Skyline game was Frost’s opportunity. (He also played some as a freshman.) After Frost first delighted the crowd by forcing an over-and-back violation, teammates circled their eyes with their fingers—“the three-point goggles,” Ford recalled—and Frost came through.

Duncanville Basketball
Seniors of the Duncanville High School boys basketball team.Brittany Graham

Tuesday, after the seniors were recognized and the video was shown, it was their turn to show some love. With Prince manning the microphone, the players gave each of the coaches a token of appreciation. After Ford received his gift, the home-side stands began to swell with a cheer as a man dressed in a black hoodie and blue jeans made his way down the stairs and then hopped over the railing onto the court.

Prince didn’t miss a beat, his introduction turning into something you might hear before a championship fight in boxing: “This man right here needs no introduction! The best head coach in the United States! My man, David Peeeeaaaavy!”

The players hugged their coach-in-exile, who had been reassigned to a district middle school and prohibited from being involved with the high school basketball program. After the embrace, Peavy walked toward the tunnel that leads to the locker room. “The district gave him the blessing to come and get the award,” Ford said. “He didn’t even stay and watch the game.”

The game, against Mansfield’s Legacy High (which finished third in the eight-team district), was not vintage Duncanville play. The Panthers trailed by five points in the first quarter and held a tenuous 36–32 lead at halftime. The score was tied at 55 early in the fourth period before back-to-back driving dunks by Holland gave Duncanville the lead for good. But even a nine-point lead in the closing minutes was reduced to three in the final seconds, giving the Panthers one final scare before Duncanville closed out its 29–1 season with a win, 75–68.

“Words can’t describe everything that we went through,” Holland said. “I’m glad I went through it with them.” It will be a few more weeks, while other top schools across the country play in state tournaments, before the Panthers will hear if they’ve finished the season as the number one team in the nation.

“It was very emotional,” Ford said of the final game. “I feel like we’re the best team in the country with dealing with emotions and being able to perform no matter what’s in front of us.”

The banner from last season’s state championship still hangs high above Duncanville’s court, a reminder of the title game that the Panthers played and won—and which the record books will mark as a forfeit.

“Even if they do take it down,” Ford said, “man, you can’t unsee what you saw.”