MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WRCB) -- Walter McGary is familiar with what Murfreesboro is like in March.
Unfortunately for the Howard head coach, his team's visits to Middle Tennessee State's Murphy Center never seem to make it to the weekend.
"The only thing I told them about this trip is I'm tired of always going over for just one day," McGary said before practice Tuesday.
The Hustlin' Tigers will make their fourth straight state tournament appearance, and fifth in the last six years, when the tip-off with East Nashville at 6 p.m. ET Thursday in the Class AA quarterfinals.
However, they've been one-and-done three times in that span.
"This will be my third trip to state, but I definitely remember last year more," said senior guard Antonio Smith. "Two years ago we won in the first round on a buzzer-beater, but last year we got sent home in the first round.
"That just wasn't a good feeling."
Howard won its quarterfinal game in both 2008 and 2011, only to be blown out in the semifinals each time.
Last year's opening game loss was especially tough for star center Brandon Walters, who was limited to just seven points because of foul trouble.
"He came in at the start of the season in better shape and has been really unselfish, thinking more about the team," McGary said. "He's been a joy to coach this year, and it's been one of his goals to get back to this point.
"I think he feels like he has a lot to prove."
The same can be said for the rest of the team, which claims to be more mature after the past disappointments.
"The beginning of the season was bumpy and we had a lot of close games, but we came together as a family and now we're ready to make history," said junior guard Cudjoe Young. "Usually we get up there and everybody gets scared and start changing up the game. This year we're sticking with the stuff that got us there."
Maturity was needed more than ever to get Howard back to the state tournament.
The school made schedule changes in the middle of district play, moving a rivalry game with Tyner to the afternoon, when shots were fired following both Howard's road and home games with rival Brainerd.
The violence continued just last week when 16-year-old student Lamonte Williams was gunned down two blocks from the school, putting the building on lockdown.
Through it all, basketball provided an escape for the dozen or so players on the Howard roster. For some, it's the reason they aren't part of the problem.
"All the stuff happening has brought us closer together as a team," Young said. "We start hanging together more often. Get closer. We try to stay together and stay of the streets.
"That's why we're here playing basketball. It keeps us here together and keeps us off the streets."
McGary says it's impossible for his team to escape the negativity they see and hear about and around the school.
However, they've decided to use it as motivation this week, heading to Murfreesboro with a mission of providing the opposite by winning the school's first state championship.
"We try to keep everything outside these walls, outside these walls," McGary said. "The things that happen outside of Howard we can't control. All we can control is the things inside.
"One thing this team has is a lot of pride about themselves as team. They feel like they're carrying the school and the community and trying to create something positive."