by Cliff Mehrtens

CORNELIUS – In its first two seasons, the Hough High boys’ basketball team won 11 games.

The Huskies have surpassed that total halfway through this season and cemented themselves as a contender in the I-MECK 4A conference. The growing pains are gone. No one looks at Hough as a fledgling team anymore.

“This season has really been based on the last couple of years,” Hough coach Justin Batts said. “It’s a group of guys being together and building things as a team. They have an understanding of each other.”

Three of the team’s seniors have been on varsity since they were sophomores. Two Hough juniors began their varsity careers as freshmen.

Batts said the Huskies are limiting opponents to about eight points per game fewer than last season.

“We’ve been a lot more successful defensively,” he said. “I think that goes with believing in each other and communicating with each other.”

Hough is 12-3 overall and 5-1 in I-MECK 4A games. The Huskies are tied with Vance, whom they defeated, for second place in the conference, a game behind West Charlotte. Hough has won nine of its past 10 games.

Luke Maye, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward, is Hough’s standout player. He’s drawing attention from Division I colleges.

Maye is averaging 19.5 points and 14.7 rebounds, both team-highs. He also leads the Huskies in three-pointers (26). Maye has scored 24 or more points in three of the past four games. He’s scored in double figures in every game this season and has at least one three-pointer in the each of the past nine games.

“Luke is a great student,” Batts said. “When you hear about someone being a student-athlete, he’s that guy. He’s made straight A’s since elementary school. I think that kind of personality affects him; he wants to be perfect in everything he does.”

Maye debuted as a strong outside shooter last season. During the summer, he got stronger, which improved his game near the basket.

“He’s also got the ability to drive to the basket from the perimeter,” Batts said. “His rebounding has improved. His vision on the court helps him. Luke’s game has definitely grown.”

Maye, surrounded by experienced talent, doesn’t have to do it all.

Drexler Clark, a senior, is one of the area’s top point guards. He’s fast, and he can score and pass effectively. Most importantly, he’s developed consistency.

“Drexler is somebody who has grown up over the course of the three years he’s been here,” Batts said. “He’s making good decisions when the ball’s in his hands, and is taking what the defense is giving us. He does a good job changing pace.

Clark is averaging 16.5 points, four assists and 2.4 steals per game. He’s averaged six assists and only one turnover in six conference games.

Jacqueaz Jackson, a junior guard, averages 8.5 points. Theo Mack, who averages 6.4 points, scored a season-high 19 in a 69-51 victory against Lake Norman on Jan. 18.

Then there’s senior Sanders Poff, the team’s unsung talent as a defensive specialist. He’s 6-2, but quick enough to shadow an opposing guard and strong enough to bang against taller players inside. It all depends on whom Hough’s playing. Poff’s assignments have included West Charlotte’s Jakeem Yates (6-9) and Mooresville’s Dre Howell (6-5), but also speedy Providence guard Giovanni Mack.

“He’s guarded everything from a point guard to a 4-man (power forward),” Batts said. “Sanders leads the team in charges taken, and he’s done a great job in a leadership point-of-view. He’s one of the major reasons we’re where we’re at.”

Poff said he likes defending and rebounding.

“I think playing football has that mentality,” said Poff, a receiver on the Huskies football squad. “You have to take a team-first attitude. I have a lot of fun playing defense.

Coach (Batts) came to me before the season and said that in the past, I was the guy who’d brought energy. This year, he wanted me to step it up. I said ‘I can do that.’”