An old adage in sports says if you work hard in practice, eventually the coach will give you a shot to play. That’s something Derrick Henry learned at Newton and carried with him to Winthrop University. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s really true.
In a homecoming of sorts, the former Ram great made his first career collegiate start Tuesday against Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum. The Bulldogs came away with a 92-86 win in overtime, but Henry capitalized on his opportunity and scored 17 points while grabbing four rebounds and a pair of steals.
“I feel I did pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement,” Henry said. “I played hard and on defense I gave it all I had.”
Known as a scorer at Newton where he averaged 21 points per game over his career, it was his defense ironically that led to head coach Randy Peele’s decision to give Henry his first start.
“I’ve always known Derrick has the ability to score,” Peele said. “I have not been pleased with what we have been getting from one of our perimeter positions, so I just decided after we took this break for Christmas — I was going to put the best on-the-ball defender in there and I thought he really gave us a lift in terms of his ability to guard the ball. I was very pleased.”
While Henry finished as Newton’s second-most prolific scorer in history, he also honed his craft as a physical defender, capable of handling bigger players. He displayed that physicality when tasked to guard Georgia freshman and McDonald’s All American Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Henry knows Caldwell-Pope well from their AAU days. When matched up, Henry was able to counter Caldwell-Pope’s quickness with superior strength. Caldwell-Pope finished with 18 but played 37 minutes to Henry’s 29.
Henry was limited to 10 minutes of playing time in the first half after picking up his second foul early on. He was on the floor for all but two minutes in the second half including the entire way down the stretch when the Eagles rallied to take a five-point lead late. About the only blemish on the night was a missed free throw with 6.8 seconds that could have given Winthrop a three-point lead. .
“I wish I would have knocked down that free throw but that happens. I just have to learn from the experience and work on it when I get back in the gym,” Henry said. “We had more positives than negatives in the game. We gave it everything we had; we just came up a bit short.”
Henry’s night ended prematurely after he fouled out on Georgia’s second possession in overtime.
Despite making his first collegiate start in front of his high school coach and team, which attended the game, Henry shook off any nerves he may have had and settled in quickly with five points as Winthrop jumped out to an early lead.
“Honestly, I thought I would be [nervous] but I was more excited and pumped and ready to take this opportunity and make the best of it,” Henry said. “Once I got up and down the floor a couple of times I felt good.”
Georgia came out at halftime and blitzed the Eagles and led by 13 in the matter of two-plus minutes. Henry led a charge back with three straight 3-pointers and a layup and scored 11 points over a three-minute span.
“We know teams are going to key on Andre Johnson and Reggie Middleton and I know we need a third scorer,” Henry said. “Those guys were able to set me up with some good shots and I was able to knock them down.”
Perhaps not coincidently, Henry’s added scoring took some of the defensive pressure off Johnson who scored a career-high 33 on the night.
Before Tuesday’s start, Henry played sparingly early in the season but had essentially fallen out of the rotation the past few games. For a player used to playing every minute of every game, Henry said it’s been a struggle at times. But he constantly reminds himself of what he went through early on in high school and how he eventually earned his chance.
“It feels exactly like when I was coming up at Newton. I just kept thinking about that this whole time and that has kept me positive and keeps me working hard,” he said. “In ninth grade, I got nothing. Once I got a chance to start, I kept it. I knew my time would come. I just have to be patient.”
The Eagles were clearly better when Henry was on the floor. Whether it was his defensive presence, scoring or just overall desire to dive for loose balls, Henry's impact may have warranted more opportunities.
“Derrick brings certain toughness. He’s a fierce competitor and he also can score the ball,” Peele said. “It’s been tough for him because he’s coming in as a new kid on the block and honestly, he’s had good days and bad days. But He took a major step today. I think he played tremendously in his first college start. He has my attention.”